Facebook and Privacy

Posted Saturday, May 15th, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Okay, so I’m a little late to the party in posting this. All the professional bloggers have already written about it, while I’ve been busy with my day job. Nonetheless, something that’s been on my mind since the beginning of the week, when it would have been timely:

I think Facebook has now hit its “cap”. People who don’t yet have Facebook accounts now seem to be saying, “I ain’t gettin’ one now!” Others who do have accounts are finally abandoning them. And I’m one of those abandoners.

I have a little bit of interest in the Disapora* Project, but I don’t think it will really take off. On the other hand, in a recent New York Times article about the project, both its staffers and backers have some things to say about just how quickly they managed to raise funding — and all of those things point to a very clear demand for an alternative to Facebook.

Facebook Co-Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has lately been saying that privacy is no longer a social norm, but lots of people don’t accept this. In fact, many of us think that Zuckerberg is saying such things in the hope of making them come true, rather than as observations of something that’s already come to pass.

When I joined Facebook, back around 2005 or 2006, it defaulted to private. For everything. The site was a walled garden, and without creating an account, you could hardly see anything besides its front page and its Terms of Service. People who put their information into the site back then had certain expectations of what would be done with it — expectations that have first been chipped away at, and now completely violated. ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick does a very nice job of deconstructing Zuckerberg’s disingenuous stance on privacy, well worth reading.

Finally, I’ve said in numerous face-to-face conversations that one of the things I dislike about Facebook is the way it tries to blur or even abolish the distinction between users’ personal and professional lives. For a long time, I assumed that was an unintended consequence of the site’s architecture. At worst, I thought Facebook’s management was callously indifferent to the problem. But yesterday, I found out that Zuckerberg actually believes that keeping such a distinction is wrong. Michael Zimmer quotes from David Kirkpatrick’s upcoming book, The Facebook Effect, then supplies some of his own (beautifully scathing!) analysis. Zuckerberg says: “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly…. Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

Zuckerberg says those days are “probably” coming to an end, but I think what he really means is they are “hopefully” coming to an end — that is, he hopes that they are.

I very strongly hope that they’re not. And I have good reason to hope: Not only are people deleting their Facebook accounts in droves, but this may just be the beginning of the departure. A recent Wired News story about a study showing that the privacy backlash was being driven by the over-35 crowd, and 18-to-34-year-olds essentially didn’t care, attracted a fair number of comments from users claiming to be under 30 and very concerned about Facebook’s privacy stance — many to the point of having already deleted their accounts.

And there’s a brewing investigation by the Federal Trade Commission that might also signal that society’s views on privacy haven’t changed as much as Zuckerberg claims.

For an example of how to make easy-to-use, easy-to-understand, fine-grained privacy controls, consider Livejournal (and sites that have re-used its open-source codebase, like Dreamwidth). A user can set their “default” privacy level for their posts to be public, friends-only, or private. Then they can easily override that default setting on a post-by-post basis, and create special lists or filters that contain only some of their friends-list. This makes it easy to post an entry that can only be seen by, for example, friends who are geographically nearby, or friends with an interest in a particular hobby (“only some of my friends are sports fans; the others don’t want to hear me talk about football”), or friends that one really trusts, or whatever. The UIs for these things are easy to find and understand, and any user who cares about privacy or visibility can pretty easily determine what the privacy setting on any one of their posts is.

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