Facebook’s used to this type of uproar after it changes something, but in my time tracking Facebook, I’ve never seen anything like this. Not even the Facebook News Feed fiasco of 2006 had U.S. Senate scrutiny. Facebook Open Graph has clearly struck a nerve with a lot of people.
Is Facebook betraying its users, though? Has Facebook compromised user privacy? After taking a lot of time to absorb the arguments and the big picture, I’m weighing in, and I doubt that my conclusion is going to be popular.
The central problem is that people believe that Facebook and the web in general should be able to protect the information we post online. I argue that this is untrue, because it goes against the fundamental design of Facebook, social media, and the web itself. We should be relying on ourselves for our privacy, and not turning Facebook into our convenient scapegoat.
True: Facebook Should Have Communicated Better
On April 21st, Facebook announced Open Graph, a platform for personalizing the web browsing experience on third-party websites and without logging into Facebook. It makes sense: Open Graph is spreading the tentacles of the social network across the web, making its presence and power known through the social plugins and “Like” buttons now plastered across the web.
The media and some of Facebook’s users haven’t fallen in line, though. Some technology pundits have deleted their accounts, all in the name of privacy. Mainstream media is hammering Facebook. There are even Quit Facebook Days being planned, although it’s unclear how many people will actually bite the bullet.
While I’ve seen Facebook’s users exude more anger than this in past incidents, this is the first time I’ve seen the media pile up so much on the world’s largest social network.
Clearly Facebook screwed up. Critics have a legitimate point saying that Facebook’s privacy options are too complicated. More importantly, Facebook hasn’t been communicating with its 425+ million users like it should: a Q&A with Facebook VP Elliot Schrage on the New York Times blog just doesn’t cut it.
I’m especially critical about Facebook’s lack of communication on the situation. I expected Mark Zuckerberg to write a blog post letting users know that Facebook is listening, despite previously stating that privacy is dead. He has done this before, and it went a long way to appeasing the angry masses.
Mark, better late than never. You need to personally respond in an open letter on the Facebook blog.
The Truth About the Web
In 2006, while I was still a junior at Northwestern University, I started a group called Students Against Facebook News Feed. It was the largest protest group against News Feed, which had recently launched at the time. My concern was privacy: I thought that Facebook was violating my privacy and not giving me enough options to control it. 750,000+ other Facebook users agreed — nearly 10% of the user base at the time.
Facebook appeased us with more privacy controls, but they didn’t take down News Feed. It has turned out to be the right decision. News Feed has become a central pillar of Facebook and indeed of all social media. Here’s what I said about News Feed, two years after the controversy:
“Here’s the major change in the last two years: We are more comfortable sharing our lives and thoughts instantly to thousands of people, close friends and strangers alike. The development of new technology and the rocking of the boat by Zuckerberg has led to this change.”
I actually agree with Mark: Privacy is dead, and social media is holding the smoking gun. Facebook, social media, and even the web itself are designed to share information. While you can be (justifiably) angry about Facebook’s lack of communication over the privacy issue, to believe that information on Facebook or other social networks is inherently private or “yours” is just wrong.
I don’t care if you have taken every precaution to keep your information private to just a few people: all it takes is one friend copying and pasting that information and posting it somewhere else to “breach” the privacy wall.
The truth is that the privacy wall didn’t exist in the first place. The web makes the transmission of information easier than ever. Social media makes spreading that information an even simpler task. An embarrassing picture can go from Facebook upload to public blog post in a matter of minutes. Even if you don’t participate in any type of social media, someone can still take what they know about you and put it online.
The web is a network of information, and information has no walls.
Protecting Our Privacy Is Up to Us, Not Facebook
The web is now the world’s social platform, and expecting any privacy controls or security settings to protect us is just irresponsible. Facebook’s not the enemy: it’s just the latest scapegoat for our fears and concerns surrounding the new world in which we live.
Before the web, if you wanted to keep something private, you didn’t talk about it. It was easier to track whether or not someone was spilling your secrets because you didn’t have as many suspects. That’s not true if you post information online, though. What was once gossip is now a “privacy leak.”
Why do we still expect anything to stay private in the YouTube and Facebook world? More and more, our habit is to share the pictures we take on our camera phones on Facebook, to share what we say over Twitter, and to upload the videos we record on our Flips. Almost everything is being caught by some form of social media these days.
Protecting our privacy starts with us, not Facebook. While the company should have more clearly communicated its recent privacy changes, if you didn’t want your pictures shared with the rest of the world, you shouldn’t upload them in the first place.
Actually, in the social media world, you shouldn’t be placing yourself in positions where people can take embarrassing photos of you. Yes, it’s unfortunate that the dumb mistakes teenagers make are getting posted online for the world to see, but that’s how the world works now.
Facebook isn’t to blame for how the web has changed our world. They are just embracing emerging trends and making the web more efficient in their wake. Being able to broadcast what I like on the web to all of my friends is smart, and making it easy for me to do that (via “Like” buttons) is brilliant.
I defend Facebook’s ambitious Open Graph project, because it does make the browsing experience better: syncing the interests I’ve posted to the website I visit is a natural extension of the Facebook platform, not a coldly-calculated invasion of my privacy. It will prove to be an innovation that makes the web more useful and more social.
Facebook Is the Wrong Target for Our Anger
I think what I said a year ago about social media, Facebook News Feed, and privacy still sums up my feelings best, so I want to quote my past self one more time:
“The thing we’ve realized is that we still have control over our privacy. It’s called choice. If you’re uncomfortable with speaking to people digitally, you can decline to sign up for those social media websites. Or you update them differently than others. I can either block relationship updates from News Feed or, in my case, I just never update about it.
News Feed truly launched a revolution that requires us to stand back to appreciate. Privacy has not disappeared, but become even easier to control – what I want to share, I can share with everyone. What I want to keep private stays in my head.
All of this in just two years. Just imagine how social media will change our society in two more.
I look forward to sharing my life and my experience with even more people. I’m not afraid of losing my privacy anymore. You shouldn’t be, either.”
I defend Facebook because it is the wrong target for our anger. It has done more to bring people together than any technology of the last five years, and the good it has brought far outweighs the bad. We made the decision to turn our personal information over to a private company, and for the most part Facebook made good use of it.
Quitting Facebook won’t solve the privacy conundrum: common sense and better education about how privacy has changed will. This debate has once again exposed the gap between how the world has changed and our assumptions about how the world works or should work. Attacking Facebook won’t help us come to terms with our society’s struggle over the changing nature of privacy.