Facebook’s Openness and Your Privacy

by Marianne Richmond on December 12, 2009

Innovation is critical to business success. Innovate or die. I think we all understand that, right? Especially on the web when yesterday’s hot, new place is forgotten in the dust of today’s hot new place.  And a market is a terrible thing to waste. Hence, we have Facebook’s latest announcement on OUR new privacy tools.

Facebook PrivacyFacebook’s recent privacy changes have gotten lots of coverage over the last several days. New media thought leaders and blog friends Marshall Kirkpatrick and Chris Saad have both written posts addressing the “evil” (Marshall) vs “not-evil” (Chris) aspect of the changes.

To summarize their positions, Marshall spoke to Barry Schnitt Director of Corporate Communications and Public Policy at Facebook who spun the party line ending with “we are going to innovate to meet our user’s request.” Marshall then asked his readers if they bought that explanation which clearly he did not. He heard, traffic and ads. Chris Saad’s position is that there is nothing wrong with that. And frankly,  I can’t disagree with Facebook wanting to make money. As Chris notes, Facebook, “wants search inventory to Google and Microsoft. They want to be as cool as Twitter.”

Marshall’s point, is that Facebook is lacking in the transparency department with their explanation that they are merely participating and enabling world change because of course, everyone wants to share more with more people. They ought to really mention how all this “voluntary” sharing and openness will be used by Facebook and will benefit Facebook. Chris writes that he thinks that Facebook’s reasons are simply, obvious.

Yes of course, at the end of the day, that IS what this is all about, the suck of the buck, and we all need to earn a living. If we don’t “get” that we are awfully naive, right? . Well Chris is a brilliant thinker and writer as is Marshall. And most of “us”, i.e. media, marketing, business people who are over 21 DO get enough of this to know the difference between what is private and what is public online and what of our online content is providing monetary benefit to someone else.

My concern and the reason I am writing this post is that the “kids” who look at Facebook as a private place don’t get how the concepts of “openness” and “sharing” and triangles and squares work with their not so private party photos and conversations. And yes, they do need to get it and to get it fast because even before the latest Facebook announcement they were under the false impression that only their designated friends could “see” their content. And if you don’t believe me ask yourself, why else would “they” continue to post what they do despite the many statistics that indicate that employers, college admission’s directors are using social networks?

And what about your great aunt and grandparents who are now flocking to Facebook in droves? Do they get the new privacy policy? Or, equally as important as do people “get it” from a “do they understand what it means” standpoint is do they or will they take the time to “get” the instructions for changing their settings.

I have to say personally, the instructions are cumbersome at the least, and as someone whose business is online I don’t mind having more of my content distributed on the web so there isn’t a lot to think about. My kids on the other hand don’t want their content open….one of them won’t friend me or his older brother. They were quite unhappy in 2006 when Facebook first opened the door to grownups which was the beginning of many open doors and windows.

There have been many good posts written explaining the new Facebook policy and how to control your privacy. I encourage you to read Make Use Of,the Electronic Frontier Foundation ,Channel Web, PC World, Danny Sullivan and/or many others.

But I also encourage you if you are new to Facebook or if you are the parents of high school or college kids or teach, coach or otherwise know any kids using Facebook (or other social networks) to understand the issue “open” and “private” in terms and with examples that are relevant and quickly explained. I know that Facebook is providing instructions and pop up windows to “lead” people through the new settings and at the same time I can so see my own kids “Xing” through to get to where they want to be….and I have mentioned this to their parents who immediately said the exact same thing. Kids and lack of patience for instructions go hand-in-hand because after all, they know it all already. Just ask them.

A few years back in real time, but a million years ago in web time (before Facebook, before Twitter) a mother of one of my son’s friends told me that she sometimes got on her son’s computer when his AOL IM box was open and IM’d with his friends as if she were her son to see what she could “find out.” For me this was the beginning of warnings to be kids to be circumspect about their online communications.

More recently, before my college age son agreed to be my Facebook friend I surprised him when I used some photos of him from a party in a video that I was making for his high school graduation. He wanted to know how I got them. When I said,  “online” he asked me if I had “gotten into” his Facebook account.  What he and lots (most?) of kids believe is that only his friends can see his Facebook photo albums of other people’s Facebook photo albums that he has been tagged in. The fact of the matter is that Facebook photo albums are really part of the Six Degree of Separation. Everyone is one friend away from seeing everyone’s ENTIRE photo album. Whoops!

I explained (again) that the friend of his whose father is Facebook friends with all of his son’s friends is also friends with hundred of other “random” people who are friend’s with hundred of other potential employers, admissions officers and so and that private photo albums simply were not private, visible only to friends. And this was BEFORE the new policy.

Other big privacy leaks on Facebook are the innocuous sounding games such as Farmville and Mobsters. Michael Arrington refers to them as Scamville. If you are playing these social games or your kids are, please read this and consider yourself warned and aware.

And from my perspective, Marshall and Chris are both right. Facebook is a business that is trying to make money which is understandable (Chris). It would be better if they didn’t try and obscure this (Marshall). However, as users, we need to understand the outcome of Facebook’s policies as it relates to our usage of the site and that is to me, the most important issue. It’s a smallville world after all.

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