Reflections on Facebook, Part Two

Facebook’ problematic relationship with privacy issues infuriates most of its users; it has ensured that no contemporary discussion of online privacy can proceed without a Facebook-related example. This has largely been the case because Facebook set out to provide a means of social networking and communication with an architecture designed to induce behavior in its users that would violate conventional privacy norms. Its default options were set for maximum information exposure and changing them required opting out via a complicated, cumbersome interface. This has had precisely the effect its designers had in mind: user behavior observed on Facebook established new social norms for information sharing, which then facilitated the conclusion the modern social networker was not as concerned with privacy as his forebears. This conclusion in hand, Facebook could defend itself against the charge it violated the privacy of its users by pointing to their behavior. The trap had been set, and Facebook users had walked right into it. Facebook shows quite clearly that the architecture of a system can create new social norms quite easily, in this case, those pertaining to privacy.

Perhaps the prime example of Facebook’s privacy-damaging architecture is the Wall. This has been a feature of Facebook ever since its inception, and nothing quite shows off how privacy norms have changed than the way that Facebook users use it. From the very beginning, Facebook urged user X to ‘write something on Y’s wall’. Note, write on the Wall, not ‘send them a message’. That is, write them a public message that everyone can see. Soon enough, Wall messages had begun, and very quickly, a pattern emerged: what people used to write in email messages was now being written on Walls. I remain amazed at the content of Wall messages: dates are planned, medical test results discussed, break-ups commiserated over, the list goes on. Indeed, I am astonished when someone bothers to send a message using Facebook’s messaging facility, so ubiquitous has the Wall scribble become. It’s the first thing you see when you see a user’s page, and the temptation to write something there is strong. And not easily resisted; I have succumbed to it myself on many an occasion. Similar behavior is observed in the comments spaces of Facebook posts. Here too, users engage in communication which might have previously remained confined to email messages. The architecture isn’t particularly to blame but these are users who are by now, acculturated to speaking loudly and openly in public. And of course, the Facebook status space encourages announcements and proclamations, which often would be better kept private; these in turn, provoke replies subject to the same caveat.

Facebook has changed some of its policies in response to some vociferously expressed concerns over its architecture but the features I’ve listed above are not going anywhere, and indeed, have never served as a focal point of any these complaints. But  they are as important as any of its default information-sharing options in changing our collective, social, reasonable expectations of privacy in social spaces.

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