Saturday, September 6, 2008

Let Us Once More Consider Facebook

I don't even spend that much time on Facebook (I swear! six or seven hours a day, tops!), but I do seem to frequently find other people talking about it and want to chip in.

This time, recommended a paper called "Facebook and the Social Dynamics of Privacy," and said paper proved very interesting. 

The author, James Grimmelmann, offers some good background information on social networking, and a solid discussion of the ways that interactions with other people and use of applications on Facebook can build up a fairly detailed picture of who you are.

Your name and location, who you know and their names and locations, any additional personal details you care to post, the kinds of relationships you have with the people you know (do you often 'poke' certain people, exchange 'gifts' with others, play games with others?), can all be seen through your profile and actions.

The kinds of things you think are interesting, and thus, in a sense, who you are, will also show up in the status messages you post, the kinds of games you choose to play, the gift-images and poke-messages you send, the 'Cause' pages you subscribe to and the institutions you declare yourself a fan of, and so on.

He talks about the fact that this picture of you is not entirely under your control as a Facebook user, since even if you keep your own privacy controls set to high, other people can leave their profiles open (or make them public at any time without consulting you), including any statements you've written on their 'wall,' pictures tagged as you on other peoples' pages, comments about you, etc.

I liked the discussion about peoples' motivations for giving away so much information on these sorts of sites. The article says that there's a natural interest in being able to control the way that other people see you: people want to look good to others, and being able to present yourself on a site with a personal profile of carefully chosen details and images is an appealingly straightforward way to do this.

It's plainly also true that social networking sites are good for, well, networking socially: keeping in touch with friends, making new connections, getting to know more about acquaintances. 

There's strong presentation of the idea that the value of social networking depends on people sharing information: you need buy-in, you need people to be on the site, using its tools and playing with its applications, or else there's no point. These sites are interesting and can be fun and useful, and that value depends on having a mass of users willing to put in the time and share the information.

But there are also real concerns about sharing too much information, making too much available about yourself or someone else. The article suggests that we tend to assume much more privacy than we really have: we think we're posting pictures and comments for our friends, and don't really keep in mind the fact that things posted on the internet can be rapidly disseminated much more widely. 

Similarly, we assume that something we send to another person will be received the way we meant it ("clearly, that comment about Betty was just between you and me!"), while in fact, without the clues of expression and tone that we get in face to face conversation, the person may take the message to be public, or neutral, and see nothing wrong with passing it on.

We've all heard stories about people who were refused jobs because their potential employers saw pictures of them mixing martinis for children or whatever, and a lot of the users of these sites are surely not much concerned with whether such-and-such personnel manager for a company they'll want to work for in ten years but haven't heard of yet is going to think their profiles are as amusing as they seem right now. 

This made me think about the idea that the web is 'small-town-izing' the world: that in a small town (and potentially in a highly web-enabled world) everyone knows everyone's embarrassing youthful (or otherwise) exploits, but you all just live with it and go about your business anyway. I mean, what else can you do? 

And, not to present questions without suggestions for answers, the article also presents some thoughts about policies and tools that probably won't help to protect privacy on social networking sites (anything that makes it harder to connect with other users, since that's what people are there to do), as well as some that might (education of users, as well as policies implemented by the sites).

There's a lot more in the article, but I've already rambled on long enough. In any case, I'm not really doing it justice, but do recommend it as an interesting look at an interesting piece of the web.

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