Privacy and Facebook

Recent privacy scandals involving social networking sites have come at an interesting time with my PhD upgrade next week. There could not have been a better furoré to demonstrate the relevance of privacy amid a public sphere.

Privacy Expectations

The details of Facebook’s battle with users over privacy have been widely documented.

A few startling facts: the growth of Facebook’s consumer base and commercial empire has generated the need for over 100 different privacy settings and a policy which (columnists have taken pride in noting) is longer than the US Constitution.

This week, pressure from consumer experts and media has caused Marc Zuckerberg to rethink. Wednesday saw an announcement of a more simplified system to try and repair the bruised relationship with its usership.

What privacy rights and expectations should users expect for social networking structures? Little in life comes for free. Facebook’s business model considers future profit projections. That, to date, has not involved consumers paying for the service.

The finite lifespan of cyberspace fads leads to a push for revenue, but that often drives consumers away. As Al Allday notes, “People don’t like being a target demographic“.

Transparency can generate favour. LiveJournal users were concerned when investment from Russia brought increased advertising. Even though it’s not the force it once was, transparency about its model has eased tensions.

Facebook has defied its critics and continually grown. Zuckerberg’s new privacy package within weeks of the data usage concerns is a clear sign. Privacy may be the factor that turns even the strongest company to dust.

Social Networking

Why should users expect such striking privacy options? How tongue-in-cheek is Zuckerberg being when he comments on the most striking new feature: the user’s ability to block people from seeing their Facebook page and friends’ pages?

“We recommend that you make these settings open to everyone. Otherwise, people you know may not be able to find you and that will make the site less useful for you.”

We almost have to remind ourselves that social networking is meant to be a public activity. As an identity portal, Facebook’s USP is finding people from all walks of life. Its popularity is what enables lost connections and friendships to rekindle after years of separation. To deny that feature is to miss the point of social networking.

Whose Responsibility?

I can understand why privacy is a concern for users wanting security, and a company of Facebook’s stature needs a satisfactory policy. But it’s still an option not to use it, or not to compromise yourself.

Why anybody posts anything that could come back to haunt them is unfathomable. The use of data for affiliate programmes and targeting has worked that way for a long time. But if something inappropriate comes back to haunt someone (e.g. British tennis players in 2007), there is nobody else to blame. Don’t blame a privacy setting – find some self-control.

Computer experts I know say that only competent users should own PCs. Perhaps it’s the same for the internet at large, and especially social networking. For a site like Facebook, a more complicated system can be beneficial in customising user preferences. It remains to be seen whether a simpler policy will prove any more effective.

What users should not expect is a privacy system that works as a safeguard for their own lack of self-restraint.

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