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.