Monday, May 31, 2010

Privacy and Social Media: Flap Over Facebook

In a protest over how the social media website Facebook treats privacy issues, 24,500 users have reportedly made plans to commit "digital suicide" on June 1. They have announced that they will take all their content off Facebook in a show of solidarity. This is only the latest incident in a controversy over how Facebook deals with the complicated issue of privacy. There are layers of irony and paradox here that could stand some exploration.

One of the main problems cited in the controversy is that it is very complicated to either figure out or alter one's privacy settings in Facebook. In an attempt to allay this concern, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's 26-year-old CEO, has instituted changes which will reduce the number of different settings and pages you have to visit in order to adjust your privacy status. Whether this will solve all the perceived problems remains to be seen.

And of course, being seen is one of the main reasons people get on Facebook in the first place. I speak as a near-total outsider to the whole social media phenomenon. I do not tweet or twitter, I do not have a Facebook presence, and the closest I have come to any of this stuff is when I watch my wife put old family photos on LifeSnapz, a family-photo-sharing site based in Chicago. Just out of curiosity, I did a little experiment this morning in trying to party-crash my wife's Lifesnapz material, registering simply to see if there was an easy way for me to look at the stuff she's posted without her invitation. There wasn't, but then, I'm not a determined hacker, either.

Facebook, apparently, is a whole different proposition. There's all kinds of publicly accessible stuff on Facebook, and that is part of the problem. Zuckerberg and his staff face conflicting priorities. On the one hand, he would like people on his site to share as much of their private information as possible, both because it gets other people to be more active and do the same, and because it helps Facebook's advertisers and other third parties get what they want as well, namely, information on potential customers. On the other hand, there are clearly limits to what some users want to share, and at times Facebook has gone beyond those limits.

I'm sure this schizophrenic conflict is experienced by many individual users too. There's the whole issue of "sexting," for example, which is not so much a problem on Facebook (although I'm sure it has come up) as it is among teenagers with camera-equipped cell phones. Back when telephones were telephones and cameras were cameras, your average fifteen-year-old girl would have had to take considerable conscious thought and planning to put a camera in her purse, take it to some private location, partially disrobe, take a picture of herself (or have a friend do it, more likely), get the film developed (without having the guy at the drugstore counter blow the whistle on her), and physically hand the salacious product to her boyfriend. Maintaining one's intention under such a series of obstacles in 1995 would have daunted all but the hardiest future porn stars.

But now that most teenagers have cellphones, and most cellphones have cameras, and there are no snoopy drugstore-counter clerks or other humans in the pathway between one phone and another, the technology has made this sort of misbehavior so much easier that a lot of kids do it. The only thing stopping them is a fear of adverse consequences if they go too far, and many teenagers don't take the forethought to consider such consequences until they have happened. The same kind of ease-of-use issues are at the root of privacy concerns on Facebook too.

If a website is too hard to use, people won't use it, but what "too hard to use" means depends on why people are using it in the first place. When "use" grows to include fine-tuning your privacy settings, what was formerly seen as adequate becomes inadequate: hence the protests and Zuckerberg's efforts to make setting one's privacy controls easier.

The effect of all this technological soul-baring is all in the direction of letting other people know more about you than formerly. Back when total obscurity was the default setting of 99.999% of the world's population and it took massive amounts of resources simply to send a letter from one end of Europe to another, privacy was essentially built into the hardware of existence, and so there was no special need to safeguard it. But now that there are strong economic forces favoring the universally-accessible blatting of one's most intimate secrets to all and sundry, we are faced with the novel problem of deciding what, if anything, was good about the old situation, and what parts of it do we want to preserve?

There are quiet human virtues which are so low-profile that they attract little attention, and in a publicity-conscious age tend to fall out of consciousness altogether. But without them, the social fabric wears thin and we find ourselves missing these virtues without really knowing what went wrong. Sexual purity is one such virtue; discretion—the ability to share information only when it is the right thing to do—is another. Those who are flagrantly lacking such virtues get most of the immediate attention, and if you believe the old saying that there's no such thing as bad publicity, it looks like no harm is done. But when it comes time for such people to desire a special relationship, or true intimacy, and they find that there is nothing special or private saved up that they can share with that special person—that's when these kinds of virtues are missed.

I hope Facebook fixes their privacy-control problems, but I doubt that they will ever post a warning on their site about the virtue of discretion, at least in so many words. They may say things like, "If you don't want people to know certain things, don't post them," but that doesn't get to the core problem. The core problem may be that we have a whole generation which has a very limited idea of what true privacy is. And as they get older, they may wish they had learned.

Sources: The item describing the digital suicides was carried by a media outlet in India at Mr. Zuckerberg's announcement was covered by CNET on May 26, 2010 at

1 comment:

  1. Managing privacy in facebook is so difficult. I recently stumbled across incliq ( It is a social network with emphasis on privacy and creation of my own private network which no corporation has access to (not even incliq).