on Facebook and the expectation of privacy

So this morning I signed in to Facebook and saw more than one friend who had posted this as their status:

Facebook is @it again. Go to the top right of your screen, click Account, then click Edit Friends. Go to the left side of your screen & click Phonebook. Everyone's phone # is being published. Please repost to let your friends know of this change in security, so that they may remove their phone #s or change their privacy settings.

First of all, to my knowledge, I have always been able to view the phone numbers of my Facebook friends who put their phone numbers on their profile, so that this is not a "change in security" but in fact what has always been the case.

Second, why are people so surprised at this? Facebook is a social networking site. The point of creating a profile is to create a thing you can share with people.

I've been musing on this all day, and I think we tend to think about digital spaces like Facebook the wrong way.

In the "IRL" world of embodied relationships and interactions, my body provides me with a certain level of privacy. No one but God can see what goes on inside my head (and whether He chooses to do so is a matter of some debate). I can choose to share bits of that inner self with others, but I have to make an effort to do it and, being a reasonably healthy person I don't share equally with everyone. I share bits of that inner self with Peter that no one else ever sees, somewhat less with my closest girlfriends and yet less with casual acquaintances. In a sense, every time I spend time with someone or have a conversation with them I am navigating the privacy settings of my self. It's something most of us do without much thought.

What I think happens is this: because Facebook serves as such a communal space for so many of us, we can tend to fool ourselves that whatever "place" we start from-- say our profile information-- is analagous to the private, embodied self from which we administer our relationships IRL. That is not the case, though-- there is no private self on Facebook, and I think lots of times people don't really get that. Your Facebook profile isn't like the inside of your head; it's not even like your living room. It's more like your picket-fenced front yard where you sit out every day and say hi to all your friends, and then take a walk down the sidewalk to other friends' yards and say howdy to them. Social convention dictates that you don't walk into somebody's front yard unless you are reasonably certain of your welcome, and in the world of Facebook, making a friend request is the way you make sure of that welcome. Because it is convenient to do so, you can leave messages in other people's yards, and leave messages in your own front yard for all your friends who walk by. But there's not really anything other than social convention and a decorative picket fence to stop anyone from coming into your yard who wants to-- advertisers can litter it with flyers, for instance. After you go to sleep for the night, there's nothing to stop anybody from vaulting the fence to take a shortcut across your yard, or even to come peek in your windows, or just getting distracted and opening the wrong gate when they meant to be going to their friend's yard next door. And so forth.

That kind of privacy-- the front yard kind, which isn't really much privacy at all-- is what we have with Facebook. If you expect anything else from it, you need to reset your expectations (and take the billboard with your phone number down from your front yard).


Kathleen said...

Loved this piece... Right to the point and so true. Well done :)

Amy Boucher Pye said...

Fabulous analogy of FB and the front yard - love it!