Matt McKeon’s jarring graphical look at Facebook’s privacy evolution has been making the rounds this week. If you haven’t seen it, check out the link and look through the years via the animated version. The evolution away from default private in a person’s network and toward what is now public is pretty interesting to see.
Three weeks ago I engaged my Media & Society class here at Lehigh in a discussion about Facebook and privacy. I asked them how many considered their photos, status updates, and wall posts to be private. More hands were raised than not. I asked them how many thought their email was private. All but one hand went up.
Then I asked the kicker question: Why the difference? The minute you send that message, whether it is an email or a wall post on Facebook or clicking to “Like” something, you are losing control of that information. Several students looked alarmed, but I pressed it further: the only privacy you have is in your head. The minute the things you think become the things you say, you lose control of those bits of information.
This one has been on my mind since SXSWi, when danah boyd delivered an excellent keynote address about privacy and social networks (full text). The definition of privacy, boyd argued, is having control over how information flows. Using Google Buzz as an example, boyd argued that when services take a system that is understood as private and makes the information shared on those networks public they are violating a user’s sense of privacy.
Something else boyd argued was more on point: there is a difference between something being public and publicized. When people share information with others in a self-selected network, they are in a sense calculating the odds that the person would violate their trust by gossiping. We do this all the time, of course. There are some people I wouldn’t trust with any information I would consider sensitive and othes I would trust with my life. While telling a friend a deeply held secret is in a sense making it public, that “public” is limited to a self-selected circle of friends. We have to share to get along in society at some point; would we argue that telling a doctor about an ailment would be public as well because it went from our head to our mouths?
Well, yes. But boyd is right; the answer is more complicated. The minute something we think becomes something we say, we are taking a gamble that we’ve chosen our network wisely.
Which brings us back to Facebook. McKeon’s graphic is interesting, but just like with the rollout of Open Graph, really my criticism of Facebook lies is in how new initiatives are implemented. Facebook has repeatedly told its users it cares about privacy, but lately most rollouts have been done with the default being toward less privacy. In fact, when Open Graph launched it didn’t even tell me that my Likes were being shared with people (even if that should have been obvious; otherwise, what is the point?). I had to wade into my privacy settings and find it.
Here’s the thing: I understand Facebook’s desire to make more of the information shared on its site public. It is looking for ways to make money and it is facing a heck of a battle with other social networks such as Twitter that tend to be more public (and thus easier to monetize). Second, it’s their network and really they can do what they want. But most important: I really like Open Graph. I think it has enormous promise for us and the way we do the Web.
My criticism of Facebook, though, is that it has been less than upfront about privacy. Mark Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook in a college dormitory, has essentially said privacy is dead and yet Facebook assures its users on the site that it takes privacy seriously. This creates an illusion of privacy on a site founded by a guy who doesn’t believe it exists anymore, and it’s made worse that Facebook is trending toward making things default public even though the sense of privacy is still there. I am gambling with every Facebook post that my self-selected users won’t do me harm. If I am wrong, that is my fault, but that doesn’t absolve Facebook of speaking out of both sides of its mouth on the issue of privacy.
Tech Crunch posted a pretty good rant about people who whine about Facebook and privacy, and for the most part I agree. You can’t post things on a social network and expect it to be private. It’s not Facebook’s fault that someone misuses it; it’s the fault of those who publish it in the first place.
So I tend to agree with Zuckerberg that privacy is dead. My only beef with Facebook is that it is helping to kill privacy while perpetuating the myth that it exists by its official statements to users.
Thankfully we dispelled that notion in my class. I told my students that if they want their personal updates, photos, and the like to be private then they have to ditch Facebook and really reduce themselves to just e-mail, and even that is not a guarantee. There really is no other way. But you shouldn’t be shocked that people, you know, actually see what you post on social networks. You joined to share information, after all, and the minute you do so you lose control of the information.
The question you should be asking yourself is whether it is worth the cost, and whether Facebook’s unique take on privacy is of concern. Not an easy one. If you’re looking for a job, you should have some common sense and realize that those things shouldn’t be posted online if you are concerned about how employers see you.
The current generation of young people coming through my classes consists of students growing up in a world where living out loud is the norm. They may yet change our expectations of privacy, but the smart money is that the tech changes us as much as we shape the technology.