There has been quite an uproar in recent days over privacy scandals involving social networking sites. It comes at an interesting time with my PhD upgrade procedure next week. A better media furoré could not have been hoped for in demonstrating the relevance of privacy in a very public sphere.
The details of Facebook’s battle with users over privacy have been widely documented. For reference, a few startling facts: the growth of Facebook’s consumer base, and presumably its expanding commercial empire, has coincided with increasingly complex privacy settings. It has meant over 100 different privacy settings, and a policy which (columnists have taken pride in noting) is now longer than the US Constitution. This week, however, members, propelled by consumer experts and a media bandwagon, prompted Facebook director Marc Zuckerberg to rethink. Hence, Wednesday saw an official declaration of a more simplified system to try and repair the relationship with a sceptical Facebook usership.
What privacy rights and expectations should users expect for social networking structures? Little in life comes for free. Facebook’s own business model must be based to some degree on future profit projections, and that, to date, has not involved consumers paying for the service. Plus, the internet has spawned several high-profile casualties (e.g. Myspace) when tastes and preferences move on. The fickle nature and finite lifetime of cyberspace fads are the incentive to push for whatever marketing potential can be found. But it is often the results of that push which drive consumers away. As the venerable Al Allday notes, “People don’t like being a target demographic“.
Transparency can work in a company’s favour, as part of maintaining trust. Loyal users of LiveJournal were concerned when investment by Russians into the company coincided with new levels of advertising. Nobody (least of all fans of numerous English Premier League football clubs) likes to think that a brand has sold out and radically altered their values. Even though LiveJournal is not the force it once was, with people now networking in different ways, and preferring shorter and snappier forms of text dissemination, their increased transparency about their model mollified the tension somewhat. Facebook has defied its critics to continually grow, and has never faced such pressures until now. Yet, Zuckerberg’s announcement and delivery of a new privacy package within weeks of the propagated privacy concerns is a very clear sign. As strong as Facebook has become, privacy may be the force that turns the diamond into dust.
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 of what social networking actually means, and accept it for what it is. It is a structure for public activity. As the most popular identity portal the world has ever seen, Facebook’s crowning feature is the ability to find people from all walks of life, past and present. Its vast popularity is what enables lost connections and friendships to rekindle after years, perhaps even decades, of separation. To wish to deny that feature is to miss the point entirely of social networking.
I can understand why privacy is a concern for users wanting the sensation of security, and do believe that a portal of Facebook’s calibre should be able to offer a satisfactory policy. Yet, for my bias on privacy, I can understand why it has not been a priority.
- There are plenty of private ways to communicate.
- There should be no misgivings that the internet is an unforgiving public fora. Once something goes public, it is effectively out of your control.
Why anybody posts sensitive information or media that could come back to haunt them is unfathomable. The public data that may circulate about users needn’t be so damaging. That films, music and books are scanned for targetted adverts, for example: affiliate programmes have worked that way for a long time. But why does sensitive information need to be shared on an open page? This needs to be broadly understood about use of the internet in general. If something inappropriate comes back to haunt someone (e.g. British tennis players in 2007), there is nobody else to blame.
Numerous computer experts I know have said that only competent computer users should own PCs. It makes you wonder whether the same should be said of the internet, and social networking in particular. For a site like Facebook, a more complicated system can actually be beneficial in customising user preferences. It remains to be seen whether the simplification will prove more or less effective.
But what users should not expect is a privacy system that works as a safeguard for their own lack of self-restraint.