PsychBook Research

Collecting and analysing psychological research on the most popular social networking site in the world today.

Review paper: Privacy and publicity – Facebook’s no fun anymore

There has been a lot of talk about Facebook and privacy all through its history, but especially so in the last month, since some new changes were made. What this post will attempt to do is to clarify what changes have taken place; secondly, the reaction to these changes; thirdly, what they mean on a deeper cultural and psychological level; and finally, to assess what directions these issues may take in the future.

As I’ve previously mentioned, while there have been several changes to Facebook’s privacy policy recently, my gut instinct is that all the hullaballoo about them won’t make much difference. But let’s have a look the issues in a bit more detail and see if some more subtle trends can’t be revealed.


One of the great design features of the Facebook experience is, I often feel, that it has somehow managed to keep its newness. I mean, while Facebook has for many become part of everyday life, it hasn’t become mundane. It still has a novelty to it, which is impressive, at least superficially. But when you scratch the surface a bit, you begin to find that things aren’t so simple. Ignoring for a moment certain features which make Facebook so appealing and addictive (that’ll come in a later post), when you look back over its history, you begin to notice that the design of the site changed quite regularly, with major changes at least every year, and recently more often. This is what has allowed it to maintain its newness, even in the eyes of its longest users: I think I’ve been on since 2006.

However, what has also changed is its privacy policy. Remember the early Facebook? Only college users in the US. This was a wall of exclusivity, and privacy, that made it appealing to its users. This also made it very attractive to non-users, or those who didn’t fit that demographic, so as soon as those barriers were lowered, and they could join, they did so in droves. Hence, non-US college students, and then high school students, jumped at the chance of joining this previously exclusive club as soon as they were able. That ‘coolness’ remained attached to the Facebook brand, as it lowered its barrier gradually, eventually inspiring nearly half a billion to sign up to date.

But while the exclusivity changed, so did the privacy. The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently showed that Facebook’s privacy policy has changed drastically, so that it is now almost the opposite of what how it began (a very nice visualisation can be viewed here, and there’s another from the New York Times here). Kurt Opsahl writes:

Viewed together, the successive policies tell a clear story. Facebook originally earned its core base of users by offering them simple and powerful controls over their personal information. As Facebook grew larger and became more important, it could have chosen to maintain or improve those controls. Instead, it’s slowly but surely helped itself — and its advertising and business partners — to more and more of its users’ information, while limiting the users’ options to control their own information. (April 28th, 2010, n.p.)

So now, if you sign up for Facebook for the first time, your information is publicly available, searchable – not to mention minable – by default. Plus, even if you already have a Facebook account, you may find that a lot more information about you is publicly available than you might have thought. I recommend that you do this right now: log off Facebook and create a new, dummy account using an alternative email address, and do a little search for yourself. Are you pleased with what you find?

Then ask yourself, do you actually want the whole world to know that you ‘like’ all the pages you do? Do you really want a future employer to know that you like meeting someone who is also drunk and immediately becoming best friends? What about sucking a cup to your face and then panicking cos it won’t come off? Or not being on fire?

Hey, I’m not the one being a killjoy – it’s Facebook who have changed the privacy settings making this information publicly available!


But how has the wider world reacted to these changes?

As the whole Open Graph Protocol broke all over the web after the f8 conference, there was a considerable amount of excitement generated among developers, but this was mixed with a certain amount of trepidation about the privacy issues. Respected blogger Robert Scoble was rather phlegmatic about the changes, basically saying that it’s too late to regulate Facebook. His basic point is that fining Facebook, or bringing in some form of regulation, will have no impact, because Facebook will continue to push the barriers, regulation will come too slowly, and won’t have any impact. Basically, we’ll have to get used to it.

But, as I’ve mentioned before, there has been a serious amount of serious criticism of Facebook’s changes. In government circles, US Senators swiftly instructed the company to change its policy, and in the public domain, 15 consumer groups have joined together to criticise the company. The bottom line is that the Federal Trade Commission is being urged to look into what Facebook is doing.

In other circles, there has been a similar reaction. Over at True/Slant, Todd Essig, in reviewing the Facebook changes side by side with the new iPhone that was left behind in a pub, drew the following conclusions:

Conclusion #1: Corporations should have a right to privacy about their plans. People should not have free access to information that will allow them to figure out what the company will do next.

Conclusion #2: People should not have a right to privacy about their plans. Corporations should have access to the information that will allow them to figure out what people will do next.

Let me ask: Is this the world you want? (Essig, April 26, 2010, n.p.)

More recently, one of Dan Yoder’s 10 reasons to delete your Facebook account, number 4, ‘Facebook is not technically competent enough to be trusted’ was shown to be painfully accurate, when, last Wednesday, a major security gap was found. This error, which resulted in the Chat application being shut down for a number of hours, was compounded the following day with another error, in Facebook’s own Democracy UK poll, which revealed how users voted in the application to their friends. Clearly, this was not a good week for the Facebook brand, where even one of their board members had his account hacked. There were also a couple of issues with Yelp, who partnered up with Facebook to personalise visits to their site, where users data was compromised.

In the end, the Facebook executive apparently had a ‘crisis’ meeting, after which it was announced that they were constantly working on new ways to protect you from scams and help you keep your account and information secure.


But what does this all amount to? Is there actually something significant happening here, or is this just another storm in a teacup? On the one hand, there have been several dark mutterings, such as the story that CEO Mark Zuckerberg ‘doesn’t believe in privacy’. While Facebook sent out one of their executives to deal with some questions, they seemed to be of the opinion that it was only some of the louder ‘tech élite’, ‘alpha users’ or ‘early adopters’ who were getting peeved. You know, nerds and geeks. Among that crowd, who were so annoyed, the opinion formed that these privacy debates would constitute a ‘Beacon Moment’, referring to a service introduced in 2007 which had to be reversed in the face of massive unpopularity.

This spectre, while still a long way off, became more likely as Google searches for ‘how do I delete my Facebook account’ became increasingly popular. Also, for what must be the first time ever, Facebook’s active user growth dropped. Wired even said that Facebook had ‘gone rogue’ and that it was time for an open alternative. And of course, right on cue, a bunch of hipsters in New York announced that their plan to build such a thing, Diaspora, had already raised $100K.

So, what seemed to be a storm in a tea-cup may actually be more of a Boston-style tea party. It is possible that Facebook will weather this one, but at the same time, it could be the beginning of the end. On the one hand, over at Inside Facebook, some analysis reveals that some of the privacy issues are real, whereas some are not. But on the other, the voices were considerably louder, if not more pointed. Jeff Jarvis stated that Facebook had confused *a* public with *the* public – in other words, just because you say something to all of your friends, doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to say it to the whole world. Well-known social media researcher danah boyd (lower case capitals by her choice – seriously) went on a lovely ‘rant’, where she defends those people who “are being duped, tricked, coerced, and confused into doing things where they don’t understand the consequences”. And, despite my laughter at her clearly liberal hippie politics, I think she might have a point.

To be perfectly honest, I have little sympathy for anyone who becomes compromised, in whatever way, because of information they have put up on Facebook – because it was put up there voluntarily. But at the same time, millions of users have put their trust in Facebook, and that relationship seems to be being abused. It is all very well for me, or any other techie, blogger, psychologist, or other chip-on-the-shoulder-type-person to say that we should all be careful about what we post, and to be aware of our privacy settings, but that is really very difficult – even before the changes. It’s quite simply this: we will have to treat Facebook as the public space, which we would be happy with a future employer – or parent! – viewing and interacting with us on. It’s a professional site for us all now, whether we like it or not. This is the re-conceptualisation which we all need to develop to be able to use Facebook safely and securely, but I can’t imagine that this will happen any time soon. As I’ve previously mentioned, even those of us who are charged with understanding and managing issues of mental hygiene aren’t using social networks in the most intelligent way.


But what will happen in the future? I have no doubt that nothing really significant is going to change any time soon. Seriously – are you going to leave Facebook? on the appointed day? What will you do instead? – email everyone your holiday photos? how will you stalk your exes? There are at least 10 reasons you’ll never quit Facebook even if you want to. Seriously though, no I don’t think that people will leave Facebook, at least not in significant numbers – yet. I mean, just remember that there are still about 100 million people on Myspace.

But on the other hand, we can look forward to all kinds of strange and unusual happenings. There is a growing sense that social networks might become a new venue for cyber-warfare, as the US government invests heavily in research in this area. What does this amount to? The story says ‘how social networks and other tools can be used by terrorists and other enemies to organize, coordinate and incite potential attacks against the United States’ which covers a lot and does not exclude, oh I don’t know, propaganda. Fun times!
Also in the pipeline, thanks to Facebook opening up the internet to all kinds of tracking, we can expect behavioural advertising to take off in a big way. Basically companies following your every move and predicting what you’d be easiest to convince to part with your cash for. This is probably most unsettling for parents of teenagers. As I’ve said, we should all be careful about what we post, and possibly view our profiles as our CVs, but I also think that parents should be aware of what their kids are getting up to also.

The next big change we will see on Facebook is the addition of location-based services, possibly within the next month. This means that you will be able to post your location as your status update. It also means that you will be able to ‘check-in’ at certain places that sign up with Facebook. Mc Donald’s will be the first. Won’t that be nice? Ciarán is eating a Happy Meal in McDonald’s Grafton Street. 4.45 am. Won’t that be fun?

Furthermore, at least three things are near-certain in Facebook’s future, extrapolating from the previous trends:

– whatever remaining privacy walls that exist, will fall, and there will be increasing, and pointless, criticism of such

– the internet will become more personalised, tracking users’ surfing and targeting them with specific advertisements, as Facebook’s ‘Like’ button spreads and is copied

– there will continue to be major and embarrassing security breaches all over Facebook, who will regularly tell us that they are ‘constantly working’ to update the site’s security features

Looking further down the line, though perhaps not too far, is that the flipside of this is that the more these breaches happen, the more likely there will be a demand for a closed, exclusive and more private social network. The fact that this will almost definitely include a subscription model does not take from the fact that, privacy policy-wise at least, it will basically be a new version of the old Facebook.

Moreover, if a new site like this springs up, and it is rewards users for sharing their information (i.e. free stuff and special offers), rather than simply an option, default or otherwise, as it is now on Facebook, then the latter may find itself in decline. These areas are being rapidly explored by the location-based social networks, like Foursquare, Gowalla and Plyce but the extent of their success remains to be seen.

But my final point has to be simply this: Facebook started out as a bunch of students building an online alternative to a college yearbook. Seriously, what exactly would you expect of such a thing? Given that it may be running out of room for growth, maybe now is the opportune moment for a better site to make itself known – with privacy controls more intuitively arranged – and perhaps designed and maintained by adults.

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Great article include very utility datas. Thank you!

18 May 10 at 06:19