Thursday, May 27, 2010

Facebook, Privacy, and Truth-- Five Misconceptions

So, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, was on NPR's All Things Considered this evening talking about the most recent stir over privacy settings. Several things come to mind about this recent "big deal" (and others like it) about privacy.

First, NPR introduced Zuckerberg as someone who was trying to prevent a mutiny among his 4 million customers.
This is the first big misconception. If you're simply a user of Facebook, you are not a customer-- you are a USER. Their true customers are the advertising agencies that clammer to buy space on the many pages of Facebook, because the incredibly rich data pool that Facebook owns allows them (Facebook, not the advertisers-- directly, anyway) to present very specific and highly targeted ads to its users. Don't be fooled: Facebook is primarily a business, and secondarily a social vehicle; and while the first is utterly dependent on the second, none of us would have Facebook without the business-model side. And the business's customers are advertisers, NOT users.

Second, I've heard a lot of people wonder why the privacy settings for Facebook aren't defaulted to the most secure, sharing little or no information by default. The assumption is that Facebook's handling of "private" information should be as tight as possible.
This is the second misconception. To begin with, this forgets the first misconception, that Facebook is a business first. The more information that is "shared," the more likely that the connections will expand and the networks will grow, which means that their information base will be stronger. Secondly, it ignores the fact that the information has already been "shared" when it was posted on Facebook in the first place. Facebook is not a secure vault for you to warehouse your personal data; it is inherently a public or at least semi-public network (or series of networks) that you voluntarily upload your information with. We all should have learned this lesson well by the many, many stories there are of people losing jobs (or just not getting them) because of the foolish stuff they put on their Facebook. Finally, think logically about this expectation: if so few people understand how to change their privacy settings to secure their data better, why would we expect that they would know how to change them to open it up more publicly? If Facebook changed their settings to default to the most secure, the network would begin to fail because connections wouldn't happen as easily.

Third, there are many different accounts of how flagrantly Facebook is abusing the dissemination of users' information.
This is the third misconception. A lot of these are rumors and severe exaggerations. Facebook is actually a pretty responsible corporate body, and they share information that you have invited them to share, to the degree that you have allowed them to share it. If you don't want your status, or birthdate, or other such data spread all over the network, then quit playing Farmville and asking for Daily Fortunes, and other "apps" that are data-mining tools. YOU chose to opt into those; Facebook didn't choose them for you.

Fourth, this recent movement of concern about privacy has led some to take lots of "drastic" measures. Some people have left the site, which is certainly one way to voice your opinion. Some have started petitions lobbying the corporate side of Facebook to deal with information and privacy in a manner more along the preferences of the users; this too is a reasonable step (only don't expect them to do it just because you and a few hundred other "friends" have asked them to). But some feel like the best way to handle it is to grouse and whine.
This is the fourth misconception. This is business, y'all. They are concerned about public goodwill and the opinions of their users only as far as it affects their bottom-line. If you are truly convinced that Facebook has unlawfully handled your public information, perhaps you should look into a class-action lawsuit-- but while I'm not a lawyer, my best guess is that any lawyer will ask you right away, "did you choose to sign up for Facebook? Did you choose to post your birthdate, your hometown, your address, your family's names, and your photos?" And the honest answer is, YES YOU DID. All that Facebook asked of you when YOU decided to sign up is for an e-mail address.

Which leads to the fifth and final point. I have to chuckle when I read a "friend's" rant on Facebook about how afraid they are of their privacy being violated-- then I look and see that their Facebook has every piece of contact information you could ever need, their full birthdate, photos, work information, education information, family information, and tons of widgets and "boxes" in which they have provided thousands of data-points about their personal life and preferences. Then I look and see that they have a blog on which they have been posting stories and photos of their kids for years. They have a Google G-Mail account. And yet they believe that they can hope to preserve their privacy by deactivating their Facebook account?
This is the fifth misconception. Your privacy is a myth. G-Mail has been anonymously reading your e-mail for years. Facebook long-ago made note of the data that you think you're hiding by deactivating it. Anyone who wants to can find your home address, your date of birth, and probably at least fragments of your Social Security number. (But I'll let you in on a secret, too: you're not as interesting as you think you are.)

If you don't want your information shared, leave Facebook-- that's fine. But don't be fooled; privacy, in the way we think of it and define it as that which existed pre-internet, no longer exists for 90% of the western world.

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