About Facebook | The Nation


About Facebook

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Growing up online, young people assume their inner circle knows their business. The "new privacy" is about controlling how many people know--not if anyone knows. "Information is not private because no one knows it; it is private because the knowing is limited and controlled," argues Danah Boyd, an anthropologist and social-networking expert at the University of California, Berkeley, who studied the feed controversy for a forthcoming article in the journal Convergence. Facebook's Kelly also contends that privacy is shifting from an "absolute right to be let alone" to an emphasis on control. "We don't think [users are] losing privacy as long as there's a control machine and access restrictions," he said in an interview.

About the Author

Ari Melber
Ari Melber
Ari Melber is The Nation's Net movement correspondent, covering politics, law, public policy and new media,...

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The feed rankled because it plucked personal details that previously existed in a social context, limited by visitors' interest in a person, and shattered any sense of concentric circles of control by broadcasting them across wider networks. (Students list hundreds of acquaintances as "Facebook friends," assuming that people they barely know don't check their profiles often.) Boyd compares it to yelling over loud music at a bar, only to find the music has stopped and everyone is staring at you.

Neither controversy has slowed Facebook's huge growth. It quadrupled its user base over the past year and is now the most popular website among Americans age 17 to 25. Facebook has achieved near total penetration of the college market, with more than eight out of ten college students registered. Older Americans are also flocking to the site: it draws 250,000 new members every day. Overall, it is the fifth most popular site in the country, ranking just behind YouTube. Young and old use it to divulge loads of personal information, often oblivious to the ramifications and ignorant of the basic features of the technology they use so effortlessly to socialize.

One study at the University of North Carolina, for example, found more than 60 percent of Facebook users posted their political views, relationship status, personal picture, interests and address. People also post a whopping 14 million personal photos every single day, making Facebook the top photo website in the country. Then users diligently label one another in these pictures, enabling visitors to see every photo anyone has ever posted of other people, regardless of their consent or knowledge. Even if users terminate their membership, pictures of them posted by others remain online. But users can't really quit, anyway.

Like guests at the Hotel California, people who check out of Facebook have a hard time leaving. Profiles of former members are preserved in case people want to reactivate their accounts. And all users' digital selves can outlive their creators. As the company's "terms of use" explain, profiles of deceased members are kept "active under a special memorialized status for a period of time determined by us to allow other users to post and view comments."

Facebook's 58 million active members have posted more than 2.7 billion photos, with more than 2.2 billion digital labels of people in the pictures. But what many users may not realize is that the company owns every photo. In fact, everything that people post is automatically licensed to Facebook for its perpetual and transferable use, distribution or public display. The terms of use reserve the right to grant and sublicense all "user content" posted on the site to other businesses. Facebook, a privately held company, rejected a buyout offer from Yahoo! last year and recently sold a 1.6 percent stake to Microsoft, which values the company at up to $15 billion. (Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation bought MySpace, the other leading social network site, for $580 million in 2005.)

Yet the same young people posting all this personal information and relinquishing their photos to corporate control still say they value privacy. A Carnegie Mellon study found that students on Facebook think privacy policy is a "highly important issue," ranking above terrorism, and many would be very concerned if a stranger knew their class schedule or could find out their political views five years from now. Of the students who expressed the highest possible concern about protecting their class schedule, however, 40 percent still posted it on Facebook, and 47 percent of those concerned about political views still provided them. The study concluded there was "little or no relation between participants' reported privacy attitudes and their likelihood of providing certain information."

Why would young people publicize the very information they want to keep private?

Critics argue that privacy does not matter to children who were raised in a wired celebrity culture that promises a niche audience for everyone. Why hide when you can perform? But even if young people are performing, many are clueless about the size of their audience. That's because the new generation is often proficient with technology it doesn't fully understand. The Carnegie Mellon study found that one-third of students don't realize that it is easy for nonstudents to access their Facebook profiles. And 30 percent of students did not even know they had an option to limit access to their profile.

Most people don't use the privacy settings to limit access to their Facebook profile. Four out of five simply accept the default setting, which allows their whole network to see the entire profile. In the UCLA network, that's 50,400 people. The Boston network has 312,404 people. For comparison, the city's tabloid, the Boston Herald, has a circulation of 201,503. Users may think they're only sharing with the friends they can see, but they're actually publishing with the reach of a newspaper.

Social networking sites also induce users to disclose information in order to be part of the site's culture. "Allowing users into your circle allows them to track your moves on Facebook and vice versa," explains technology writer Michael Hirschorn. "Even more compellingly, it allows you to track, if you wish, their interactions with other users, all from your own user page. You can play with your privacy settings to prevent this, but as you become acculturated to the site, you realize that you have to give information to get information."

Facebook's Kelly argues that the trend is broader than a single website. People know their actions are tracked online, he says, just as they're tracked on streets filled with surveillance cameras, "whether privately controlled through an ATM or publicly controlled [for] legitimate anticrime or anti-terrorism purposes." In an era of massive top-down surveillance, posting information on a website may feel downright redundant. Just as most consumers have acquiesced to companies collecting loads of data and private information about them, many Facebook users seem resigned to the company's aggressive use of private information.

In September Facebook launched a "public search" feature to list users' profiles on search engines like Yahoo! and Google. The move could fundamentally shift the site from a (relatively) closed social network to a more exposed public directory. Students originally joined Facebook as a private campus hub, but now it touts some of their profile information to the world. (Diligent users can opt out, and visitors still need to be Facebook members to view people within networks.) The massive search function might one day make Facebook an indispensable part of Internet commerce--creating the "Google of people," as blogger Jeff Jarvis puts it. The potential loss of privacy could ultimately beat the feed controversy by several orders of magnitude, but there has been no backlash so far.

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