Of Facebook and Privacy

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Toward the end of May, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, announced that the company was revamping their privacy controls yet again. It has become something of a yearly (or more) change at Facebook, as they’re constantly changing things “behind the scenes” that affect the end user’s applications, posts, photos, etc. Part of the problem that Facebook has had, overall, is that they tend to make changes that affect users globally, in the sense that no matter what their privacy settings were, they are then changed without informing them as to what is going on.

The picture above shows the simplified Privacy Controls. Bear in mind that all these controls have existed in Facebook forever, but as Zuckerberg describes it, they became so “granular” that it became confusing for the end user. It used to be that you could set all of these things with a series of “check boxes,” but now all you have to do is select that only “Friends” can view your information, or “Friends of Friends” (allowing a little less restriction, in case a “Friend” refers to something you posted and then a “Friend” of theirs comments on it), or you can make your information available to Facebook at large. All this can be done with a single click. Or, you can pick a Custom profile that allows for the granular control you’ve always had.

I listen to podcasts practically all the time, and this particular story has been covered over the last few weeks on NPR’s Science Friday, as well as NPR’s On Point. The Science Friday piece is shorter than the On Point one, if you care to listen, but the discussions and the callers all provide very interesting debate on the subject. The discussion ranges widely, with mostly adults that didn’t grow up with the internet worrying about young people that are using the service without regard to their future. They point out that the business model Facebook uses to get money in the first place (i.e. advertisements) relies on freely distributed information from each person, as essentially, your information (e.g. likes/dislikes) is what is being sold to advertisers, thereby funding your use of Facebook.

In having conversations on this matter with Brooke and Kristen, they rightly point out that things being posted on Facebook aren’t entirely under our control. Hypothetically, a person could be out at a bar and have a picture taken of them, and then have that picture posted on Facebook and “tagged” with their name on it. Of course, as they both pointed out, if the individual wasn’t participating in anything they would be ashamed of, they’d have nothing to worry about. Keep in mind that, if anyone posts a picture and “tags” you with it, and you remove that “tag” yourself, it can never be re-added, thereby limiting the ability for anyone to search for that incriminating picture with your identification attached to it.

In my case, I’ve used Facebook for years, but I have always kept some amount of control on what I post on it. I do my best to keep my Facebook profile as uninteresting as possible, yet still keep other people abreast of what I’m up to. The service, for me, is helpful in keeping me in touch with other people that I may have otherwise lost touch with over the past decade. For that, I am very grateful in having Facebook available. At the same time, my generation grew up with the advent of the internet, where it took minutes to download a single photo. Generations now are entering a different world where social networking is almost considered a requirement before you even enter middle school (Facebook’s Terms of Use suggest that you be 13 before using the service. Obviously, it’s up to parents to police that). Kids now are taking cell phones to elementary school, which was unheard of back in the 90s. The newer generations are dealing with privacy in ways that my generation never had to.

Ultimately, I come down on the subject in the following ways. Facebook is a service that is free to use, yet certainly isn’t required. No one is forced to use the service. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, no one is forced to post things onto the service for all to see. It is up to the individual to decide whether a). they want to be a member of Facebook in the first place, and b). whether they want to post anything or not.

So, with all this under consideration, I come to a related (but thus far unaddressed) question: Is it possible that Facebook, and the internet in general, acts as a distributed “Big Brother” such that everyone (that cares…) ends up acting better than they otherwise would in public situations for fear that anything they do could be recorded and posted somewhere?

I guess we’ll find out in the next few years. Somehow, I kinda doubt it.

4 Replies to “Of Facebook and Privacy”

  1. No, kids will not ‘police themselves’ and behave better because the ones who have ‘not so nice’ photos out there, I think, like and crave the attention they get from those photos being there. There’s an element of society that thrives on the attention – good or bad. And, or course, down the road when the ‘bad’ stuff comes back to haunt them, they will cast the blame elsewhere and not on themselves.

  2. Dang, Nathan…I thought I’d hidden that one from public view! 😛

    And, to Mom, I generally view this as I do seat belts. If you are driving a vehicle, then you should know that seat belts are one of the easiest things you can do to protect yourself in the case of an accident. Same thing goes with the internet. If you are old enough to browse the internet, without any sort of oversight from your parents, then you should know better than to post certain things. If your parents didn’t teach you these things before letting you loose (or didn’t teach you to always wear your seat belt), then they also hold some responsibility.

    Good thing my parents did so well with me. 🙂

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