On Facebook and (what we think of) Privacy

Much has been said the past couple weeks about Facebook‘s privacy rules and terms of use.   Our on-again, off-again romance with Mark Zuckerberg has been documented and opined by everyone by now, including me.  On other channels and “in real life” I’ve made it plain that I’m not a fan of Facebook and that I use it sparingly.  However, I’m otherwise happy to leave a data trail on other sites that leads back to “the real me.”  This website is written and hosted in my real name, and I use Twitter with my real name; sometimes I even say things on Twitter that shouldn’t be said in polite conversation (gasp!).

Why are we up in arms about Facebook, though?  Never did we see such digital fifth-column attacks against the likes of MySpace or now FourSquare.  And with the exception of the poor planning around Buzz, the digital world is more or less complacent when it comes to the amount of data we give to Google Inc.

Facebook: great for sharing

Facebook is a different beast, however, because its original design helped us find our friends online and then to speak to only our friends online.  In its original incarnation, Facebook encouraged shared information and shared data, but it encouraged this shared used amoung friends only.  We signed up because we liked that the website helped us share things securely with our friends; we gave little heed to the fact that Facebook, Inc was offering a service and we didn’t think that maybe this data storage and exchange might be the price to pay for their effort.

Somewhere along the way, Facebook matured into a wildly successful social network. (Yes, it is a mature system.)  It also regularly tweaked the user agreements that mediates its relationship with its now-400 million users and their data in a manner that often opened access to user profiles, not unlike other social media systems.  Here’s the crux: Facebook grew into a successful platform because it allowed people to share data; their constant tweaks to their user agreements and privacy policies merely improved on their success by giving its users even greater opportunity to share data widely and in a open manner – just as these users can do on other systems.  Social media systems like Twitter, FourSquare, MySpace, and even others like Flickr, Tumblr and LiveJournal have given users more opportunities to share themselves to the world and to be a part of it in return.  Social Media may as well be called the “Social Internet” because the paradigm inserts the human element into all the links and connections that our networks are already made of.   In short, Facebook is doing what others are also doing : they’re in the business of helping people come together and share the things that make up their lives.

We give and we take when it comes to sharing on FB
We give and we take when it comes to sharing on FB

But what about that word – sharing – and what about that concept we’ve been batting around – privacy ? Sharing information online is not like sharing your dessert, and online privacy has little to do with traditional notions of the private, such as a person’s relationship with the state or other people.  It’s when we start discussing these things that so many of us want to argue that we thought the information we uploaded to Facebook was going to remain private between our friends and ourselves, that Facebook had neither the right to share our information with others nor the privilege to make it easier for others to share things with us.   But while there is merit to the argument that Facebook has broken the trust it had with its users, the way that we often assume a perpetual obligation on the part of Facebook to serve our needs for online privacy is plain wrong.

It is wrong because sharing information is what Facebook has always been about.  Facebook is a successful company because it developed a system that facilitates information exchange, and invariably, information exchange is what we want and what we do with the Internet.  If we felt we had a right to privacy on Facebook and that Facebook Inc has an equal obligation to keep the data secure and never use it except when we tell them when and how, then we were being foolish. We were especially foolish as we’ve been dropping bits and pieces of information all over the Internet since it became a popular tool in the 1990s.  What we give to Facebook is not private.  And what we write in our e-mails – be it on a company, government, or educational server, or a private hosted account like Gmail – is not entirely private or secure. The only things that are private in our world are the things we keep to ourselves.  Like other Internet companies, Facebook is not in the business of keeping secrets – it’s in the business of sharing things.

At this point I’m reminded of one of Robert Scoble’s most recent discussions on Facebook and privacy.  Scoble tells us he has a very-public Facebook profile that can be accessed on the wider public web.  His wide-access Facebook account helps him connect to people – people he knows well, and people he probably doesn’t know so well.  Facebook, to Scoble, is a social service that is successful because it opens our information to others – it is in the business of sharing things.    And when it comes to the nagging facebook privacy question, Scoble reminds us where the user stands in his own relationship with Facebook:

Facebook is a free service that I don’t control. Neither do you. The only control we have is whether we use it or not. I’ve decided to use it, but have already gotten ahead of Zuckerberg: I’ve turned every privacy setting to “as public as possible.” If Zuckerberg wants to make Facebook as public as Twitter or as public as Foursquare, I’m cool with that, but will not use it to store anything private.

I like this quotation because it summarizes some of the most important things about our relationship with Facebook.  Although Scoble’s entire post is largely about how trust affects privacy, this quotation touches on things more to the point: control and agency.  We must stop saying things like “Facebook is doing things with my data!” and we must stop saying it now because it’s plain wrong.  We control our data and we choose where we store it and who we share it with.  But when we upload our data to Facebook, the nature of the data changes: no longer is it “our data” (if it was ours in the first place).  Now it becomes “data about us.”  When we put our information on Facebook, we cede total control of it in return for something: the pleasure of social exchange.  We are the ones who choose to upload data; it is part of a transaction we made in return for the service Facebook provides. What we offer to Facebook can no longer be private to ourselves because it is no longer ours to control.  Facebook may give us back a say on how much of this information may be presented at certain times on the Internet, but this is a service they provide to us as opposed to an obligation.  We control what we put on Facebook and if we are uncomfortable telling secrets then we certainly should not offer it on a social media company whose stated mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.

We actively choose what and what not to share with others.
We actively choose what and what not to share with others.

I like social media and I’m happy it’s in my life.  And frankly, Facebook can and does do a lot of great things for its users.  And although I think Zuckerberg needs to grow a little more to be a successful executive, his learning has thus far been a trial by fire and his work in the past week to sort out the privacy PR mess shows that the company is more responsive to the concerns of its users than many of us like to believe.  In terms of privacy and control, Facebook may have fumbled the ball a couple times, but I’d argue that its users have collectively fumbled the ball as well.  We cannot and we should not expect privacy from a company that wants to share our information and wants things to be open.  If privacy is what you need from Facebook, then it may be best to look elsewhere.  But if you’re looking for a system than can help you share things about yourself to others you may or may not know, then right now Facebook is the best thing going on the Internet.   When people say things like “Facebook is the Internet”, they may be half-joking, but they are actually half-right, because the Internet facilitates information exchange, and the facilitation of information exchange is Facebook’s expertise.

[post-script:  I wonder if Scoble ever uses the phrase, “in real life” when talking about the Internet – I would expect that he does not.   We really should move past the idea that what we project about ourselves on the Internet is any different from the ways that we project ourselves to different people when not sitting with a computer, iphone, or ipad in hand.]