Social Media

Facebook's Privacy Switcheroo

By Elisa Gabbert January 15, 2010 Posted In: Online Marketing Blog Roundup Comments: 0

Facebook Privacy

In an interview with Michael Arrington last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg told the world that Facebook is changing to keep up with it—and what the world wants, apparently, is less privacy.

Naturally, this caused a big hubbub (at least in the online marketing corner of the world), with many claiming Facebook is acting against its users' best interests, trying to trick them into doing what will increase Facebook revenue—or, rather, into not doing what won't help its revenue. By not changing the now-default settings, users will (perhaps unintentionally) make their data more public and searchable.

Others leapt to Facebook's defense. This is the way society is moving, they said; get over it.

Falling in the former camp, Marshall Kirkpatrick wrote a two-part think piece of sorts on ReadWriteWeb. In the first piece, he accuses Zuckerberg of disguising his true motives, which are profit-driven and don't actually reflect society at large:

I don't buy Zuckerberg's argument that Facebook is now only reflecting the changes that society is undergoing. I think Facebook itself is a major agent of social change and by acting otherwise Zuckerberg is being arrogant and condescending.

In the interview, Zuckerberg cited the rise of blogs as evidence of people caring less about privacy. Kirkpatrick doesn't buy this either: "Not very many people write blogs, almost everyone is on Facebook." True – and part of the reason so many more people are willing to use Facebook is its promise of privacy.

Former promise, that is. And this switcheroo is exactly why Kirkpatrick and many others are so pissed off by Zuckerberg's comments:

Whether less privacy is good or bad is another matter, the change of the contract with users based on feigned concern for users' desires is offensive and makes any further moves by Facebook suspect.

In other words, Facebook may have crossed over into Big Evil Machine territory, bumping elbows with Microsoft and Google. (In the followup post, Kirkpatrick elaborates on why privacy is still important.)

Michael Arrington fired back with an obnoxiously defensive post on TechCrunch, telling all the "Luddites" to "chill" about Facebook privacy. He argues that cloud-based products like Gmail already sacrifice privacy, but "the benefits of those products far outweigh the privacy costs. And people are going to be just fine with Facebook, too." He goes on:

The fact is that privacy is already really, really dead. Howard Lindzon nailed it the other day when he said “Equifax, Transunion, Capital One, American Express and their cousins raped our privacy.” Everything we do, everything we buy, everywhere we go is tracked and sitting in a database somewhere. Our location via our phone, or our car GPS. Our credit card transactions. Everything. Honestly, a picture of you taking a bong hit in college is mice nuts compared to the mountain of data that is gathered and exploited about every single one of us every single day. You just don’t really see that other stuff because those companies don’t like to talk about the data their [sic] gathering.

No, this isn't just about corporate transparency. It's a different situation. Here's why: The average Facebook user isn't worried about details of his credit card statement that are being saved in some private database and could potentially someday be dragged up as evidence in court. He's worried about the picture of him taking a bong hit. That's the thing that might turn up in a Google search for his name—something his blind date or his boss might find. That's the thing that is far more likely to have immediate negative consequences on his life.

Most people would rather give up some privacy at the level of Capital One and Equifax—the mountains of data that nobody sees—than expose their daily goings-on to their moms and grandmothers and potential employers. The fact that we "don't really see that other stuff" is exactly why it's not as threatening. It may be threatening to people who will really suffer if the data somehow ends up being used against them—embezzlers, say, or frequent purchasers of DIY bomb makings—but Joe Facebook User is more threatened by a loss of Facebook privacy. It's a lot easier for Joe FU to give up embezzling than it is for him to give up his bong (or for a high school student to give up everything her mother doesn't approve of … or for regular people to give up any number of legal or nearly legal activities that they might be judged and punished for … and which they've become accustomed to sharing in small circles).

Arrington claims that "we don’t really care about privacy anymore. And Facebook is just giving us exactly what we want." If that's what everybody wants, why are we constantly hearing horror stories about people being fired or not hired or denied health insurance or divorced because of something on a Facebook page?

Funny comment on this post:

I think the real issue facing facebook is not privacy, but all the moms, dads, uncles and aunts joining it and killing the entire vibe. No kidding, but having your mom in your friends list makes it pretty hard to have some real fun with your friends. Plus, nobody wants to hang around where their parents hang around too…

Um, that is a privacy issue, genius. Maybe the people who "don't care about privacy" don't really understand what privacy is? Privacy isn't just about binary data stored in a server vault; it's also about the human-readable data that your mom might see. That's why you don't leave the door open when your girlfriend comes over.

In a very timely move, The Rumpus, a literary/arts site I read regularly, published a fascinating interview with an anonymous Facebook employee, revealing that on-site employees used to have access to a master password based on "Chuck Norris" (giving them open access to any account), among other delicious details. Some have cast doubts on its authenticity, and Facebook's statement was "This piece contains the kind of inaccuracies and misrepresentations you would expect from something sourced 'anonymously.'" But in another response on TechCrunch (first and last time The Rumpus ever gets picked up there, I'd wager), Jason Kincaid writes:

Reading between the lines, if Facebook was able [to] flatly deny the claims made in the interview I suspect they would have. Instead it is trying to undermine the credibility of the article without pointing out any facts that were incorrect.

A lot of engineers commented saying stuff like, "Duh, obviously it's all stored in a database that can be queried" and "Master passwords are as old as time" – but while this stuff may be obvious to people in the tech industry, it probably isn't obvious to the average Facebook user. Most of them just don't think about it. And this circles back to Kirkpatrick's issue with the change in default settings. Techie geeks are savvy enough to alter their privacy settings as necessary, but many if not the vast majority of users will just leave the defaults as is, and they may not realize the implications.

A few more reactions

Aside from Pete Cashmore, who wrote on Mashable that "Zuck is right; the change was inevitable," most reactions I saw were negative.

On Marketing Pilgrim, Frank Reed agreed that regular people stand to be hoodwinked:

I think my only real concern is just how little attention most people pay to these major shifts in social norms especially when they are moved along at rocket speed by something as pervasive and powerful as Facebook.

On The Register, Joe Fay sarcastically congratulated Zuckerberg on his "prophet" status:

Older companies had been hamstrung by "conventions" and their legacy systems, Zuckerberg said. On [the] other hand, he had magically peered into future, from his "dorm room at Harvard," and constructed a company that would be ready to facilitate this brave new open future when it arrived.

"We thought this would be the social norm and we went for that," he declared.

Along similar lines, here's Chris Matyszczyk on CNET:

Perhaps you weren't aware that people's comfort with sharing had become a new social norm. Perhaps you were naive enough to think that people used laptops and social-networking sites to connect very specifically with certain other people in order to share certain things. You know, in a relatively private way. Like letters that fly at the speed of light. You were mistaken.

Whatever Zuckerberg and Arrington say, and whatever effect it has on Facebook's profit margins, I think a lot of people do still care about privacy very much. I wonder how many prophets are racing to develop a Facebook competitor right now – one that offers the privacy and exclusivity that Facebook lacks. All the kids whose parents and grandparents and teachers are on Facebook now – young people like those who drove Facebook's growth in the first place – they may not think of it as a "privacy" issue, but they're looking for somewhere else to turn.

Photo credit: rpongsaj

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