Much has been said about Facebook’s recent changes concerning the privacy of user data. Michael Zimmer and Fred Stutzman provide enlightening details and perspective, and concern is going “mainstream”: it’s in the New York Times. In short, a whole lot of stuff now cannot be private under any circumstances.
But I think the most unsettling thing besides lack of control is, for many people, the uncertainty, the feeling that the privacy ground keeps shifting beneath our feet. With over 50 (and growing) different settings to think about (see the NYTimes infographic) and subtly polysemous terminology (“pages”, “like”, “connections” and so on) it’s hard to know not only what the universe of settings consists of, but what each settings’ options mean for the sharing of your information. And I say that as a tech (cough) “elite.” What about the 399M others who aren’t deeply versed in cookies, caches, config files, and related technocrap? They’re screwed. And when they find out, they become scared and outraged. I explained to someone recently some of the ways one’s information gets shared, and I got the shocked reply, “You mean when [my son] plays that stupid Mafia game, Facebook gives them my information?” I wouldn’t be surprised if more people do start to bail out.
So I have a new Facebook strategy for myself and I’m recommending it to others: “look but don’t touch.” I’ll log into Facebook and see what my friends have posted, maybe comment on or “like” their statuses or photos, but that’s about it. But wait, you might say, if everyone does this, won’t there be no content left in Facebook? Well, sure, but that’s the point. Like many people, I’m sure, I’m hesitant to leave Facebook entirely, because I do derive a great deal of enjoyment from it. But that enjoyment derives from the social experiences I’ve had there, not from Facebook per se — til now they’ve just done a remarkably good job at hosting it all. So when my friends want to host their social experiences at Facebook, I’ll be happy to attend and participate and respond. But I’ll host my own social experiences elsewhere for now, and if my friends want to be part of them, they can follow me there. I like being public — I tweet a lot! I have a fully-stocked RSS reader and even occasionally post here on my own blog, am on email and IM and Skype all day, and keep my personal webpage current. I want a fully-connected digital life in which privacy means not invisibility, but rather control.
This approach also includes cleaning out my profile (no links to interests, groups, universities, geographic areas, or unnecessary demographic information), the existence of which is kind of perverse anyway. Who is this information for (besides marketers)? My friends already know where I have worked and gone to school. So what’s left? Am I expected to make a new friend online because we both like This Old House? Isn’t that the kind of thing newsgroups were good for? Maybe listing your schools and workplaces is a good way to find old friends/coworkers, but that’s just a shortcut. For nearly everyone (see: giant component), if you click on your friends’ friends long enough, you’ll find everyone you’re looking for. Remember, you’re already connected (socially) and you can leverage that to get connected (digitally). Don’t forget that the latter is just a representation of the former.
I think the account closing/cancellation approach is misguided because, even though it accomplishes the goal of keeping one’s own information private, it does so at the expense of depriving oneself of valuable social experiences with one’s friends. “Look but don’t touch” instead slowly weans people off of Facebook and makes them less reliant on a single gateway to social life online.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that another reason I’m not deleting/closing my Facebook account is that I’m optimistic they’ll get it right eventually, and I want to be there for it when they do. Plus, I am geeky-proud of my under-2000 user ID number, having signed up in March 2004. It has elicited compliments from other nerds — I’d have to be crazy to give that up.