An Illusion of Privacy (The Facebook Debate)

privacy sign

photo by rpongsaj on Flickr

There has been a ton of talk online about the most recent privacy debacle, stemming from Facebook’s Open Graph and other privacy changes. One interesting point of view was that of tech blogger Robert Scoble who wished that Facebook was more open, because right now only 5000 people can see his page.

In contrast to this viewpoint, danah boyd believes that most people are not like Robert Scoble. They are angry and confused with these changes and feel like they have to suffer through them and continually “fix” their privacy settings when Facebook makes changes. The reason they feel like they have no other choice and cannot delete their profile is because they have invested so much in creating it, and all their friends still use it as a way of primary contact. People feel trapped.

Another viewpoint comes from Mashable contributor Ben Parr, who defends what Facebook is doing. He makes the point that privacy on the web is dead. Even if you can control who sees your profile, any information you put up is still a copy/paste away from being out on the open web. You have little control of something once it goes online.

Since libraries are champions of privacy, I think there are a couple of lessons here for us and our users:

  • Privacy is the responsibility of the user – If you are worried about someone (mom, ex-girlfriend, employer) seeing something on your Facebook profile, you probably shouldn’t post it in the first place. Privacy online is an illusion. This is Parr’s point about any info being a copy/paste away from everyone seeing it. If something is put on Facebook or elsewhere, others will eventually see it. It’s simply good practice to not post secret things online.
  • Social media is public sharing of information – Going along with the first point, there are no more walls. Twitter is an open conversation. Facebook is realizing this as well and trying to make their site more open. They want to allow people to share more across the web (the reason for Open Graph). Mark Zuckerburg believes that public sharing is the new social norm and wants to tap into that.
  • People use social media for different purposes – Robert Scoble wants Facebook to be more open, but that’s because he uses it for self promotion. As boyd points out most people don’t use Facebook in this way. They use it to keep in touch with friends and share their personal lives. Social media has tons of uses though: self-promotion, learning, communication, marketing, friendship, etc. Assuming that everyone is using a tool exactly like you is terribly short-sighted.

I agree with boyd that people are frustrated and feel trapped. But the reason for this is because they are believing a lie. Facebook created the illusion that you have privacy settings and these settings keep your information safe. In reality, these settings are confusing and often change; and even with privacy settings a friend can download a photo you post and put it elsewhere. In the age of social media, information posted on the web (even behind walls) can be shared everywhere.

This can be a great thing. A lot of amazing things can happen with this ease of sharing information. The problem comes when people share things on the web that they shouldn’t. In my opinion libraries and privacy task forces should be focused on dispelling this illusion that people have walled social media gardens where they can air their dirty laundry.


Library Services Finding Users Via Social Media

About two months ago I wrote a post called Ambient Awareness in Twitter for Reference. I came up with the idea of setting up targeted search alerts in order to capture questions that people didn’t even know they had — questions in which the library could assist them.

Laura, a London law librarian, asked in the comments of the post how this idea was working out. So, I figured I would share my experiences.

So far, things have been fairly positive. If I find someone from our college is doing a paper I may send them a link to a possible useful resource, or even just wish them good luck. Sometimes I don’t hear anything back, sometimes I do.

Twitter conversation about a religion paper

Erik Qualman said in his viral video Social Media Revolution “in the near future we will no longer search for products and services. They will find us via social media.” That’s what’s going on here. Social media, powerful search capabilities, and RSS make it possible to have a form of ESP. We can deliver value to our patrons when they are not even expecting it and maybe even make them say “wow” like in the example above.

Like I said, not everything has been a success. Sometimes I don’t hear back from folks, but hopefully they find the support useful. But the alerts I’ve set up also give me a lot of insight into the research and study habits of students. There’s a lot of talk of procrastination, and a number of late night posts or posts about the rigors of writing papers. Some students post multiple tweets about the paper they’re working on, and you can see that their being  pretty diligent about it.

The value of Twitter, and social media in general, is not just delivering services but also listening and learning more about your users. These alerts are doing both.


Your Website’s Got Tentacles!


image cc on Flickr via brunkfordbraun

You have a library website. People go there, learn about your library, get help, and access your resources. But that’s not the only place where people should be able to do those things. The library website should be thought of as a larger critter, with tentacles that stretch out in lot of different directions, trying to scoop in unsuspecting patrons.

What do I mean by tentacles? Tentacles are other places, spread out on the web, where people can connect with the library. This could mean customizing your library Facebook page, to add a chat widget or links to library resources. It could also mean having notes on pictures in Flickr that link to a catalog record. It could mean a lot of things:

  • Library resources in your LMS (Angel, Blackboard, Moodle, etc)
  • Creating search alerts in Twitter to snag patrons who didn’t even know the library could help
  • Library blogs
  • Library videos on Youtube or Vimeo

Your official library website should be a sort of home base where people can learn everything about your library and what you have to offer. But having tentacles can be very useful in showing the value of the library and catching users who may never go to your website.

An LMS is a good example of a tentacle. Some users (especially distance users) may never even think about the library. But if you have a section or page in an LMS then the library may become more visible and get additional use. The same goes with Twitter. Users may not be following you library account, but if you set up alerts for a few library related words, you can contact them and make them realize that they have access to a library and that it could be of value to them.

Get bits of your content out to numerous places on the web. Don’t think of these things as watered down versions of your website. Think of them as tentacles stretching out across the web, extending your services and resources to unexplored nooks and crannies.