Facebook – changing the nature of privacy

I am uneasy about facebook. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against it – in fact I am completely addicted to it. Having resisted it for a long time, once I took the plunge and signed up I quickly got hooked. But there are whole new social constructs built into facebook that I don’t think we have understood – and there are implications that I’m not sure I’m ready for.

It wasn’t long after I joined facebook that I was ‘found’ by an old friend. Facebook told me “you are now friends with Tim.” This is strangely unsettling, there is an implication that I wasn’t friends with Tim until it became ‘official’ on facebook. Of course, it’s catchy terminology – much simpler and niftier to say “you are now friends” than to say “You are now connected on facebook”.

The upside turned out to be much more significant than I imagined – I already had Tim’s email address, and he had mine. But via facebook we communicated much more often. There was the convenience of chatting when we were both online at the same time, but also the prompt of our status messages – I learnt that he was moving into a new flat, that he had a new job, that he had bought a dog, and all of these things prompted quick conversations between us that would not have happened otherwise. It truly did make us more connected. I know more about what’s going on in his life, and vice versa, than I ever have before. It’s great.

But that part of it is all open and transparent. It’s the weirdness of all of those public conversations that I just can’t get my head around. Some of them are fun – I comment on a friend’s status message, he comments on mine. Another friend joins in, it’s all very light hearted and cheerful. Even when my status messages are flat and depressed, the responses often help to boost me back up.

The other day, though, I was talking to a friend I am linked to on facebook. We hadn’t talked in ages, and we never seem to be online at the same time, so it was good to catch up. But what took me by surprise was all the stuff she knew, because she had, of course, been reading my status messages, and all those conversations. It hadn’t occurred to me that she had, because I couldn’t ‘see’ her. It felt really strange.

I suddenly stopped to think about all the people I am friends with on facebook, around 70 at last count, many of whom I never see online. They don’t post to facebook much. No status updates or conversations. They are invisible to me on facebook, yet my facebook interactions are not invisible to them. It is so easy to forget they are there.

It’s not, you understand, that I have a problem with any of my facebook friends reading what I post there. It’s just that there is this sense of community that is wildly inaccurate. This feeling that you are interacting with a small crowd of people in a private room, when in fact there are all these hidden watchers. It’s as though the private room is a glass box (one-way glass, and covered with hidden microphones) in the middle of a shopping centre. There could be hundreds of people wandering by, watching and listening to your conversations while they go about their business, and you might never know they are there. Particularly when you add in the ‘friends of friends’ who can see surprising amount of your stuff, even if you are paranoid about your security settings, like I am.

My unease is at least partly because I grew up with private conversations. Every mode of interaction I have had, until now, has been with a known group, a known, and detectable, audience. It was clear, open and straightforward. Perhaps it is, or will be, different for kids who grow up using tools like this right from the womb. They may never develop this false sense of privacy, of knowing who is there or listening simply by looking around. But I do wonder what the social implications of that will be?

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2 thoughts on “Facebook – changing the nature of privacy

  1. Daniel

    I think the challenge is that Facebook is mostly quite zero-sum in its privacy. You get everything or nothing.

    What we often need is the privacy continuum, as we do in real-life. From “here’s something to the world” … to “here’s something for SOME members of my family” … to “here’s a thing for you, my cohort of dear friends”.

    Yes, your “friends” are really just a bunch of people on your contact list. With your *friends*, being a subset of this. Of course, “friends” get to see all your shenanigans – which … if you were to be really honest about … you wouldn’t really like them to see.

    1. lindamciver

      I agree that levels of privacy would be good. But it is complete awareness of the nature of facebook that I think I lack, and I wonder how many others do, too? Are there facebook users out there who keep the “lurkers” fully in mind, who are completely aware of who can (and does) look at their facebook details? It has recently been argued to me that facebook is no different to usenet, privacy-wise, and as such this is not a new phenomenon. But it is the illusion of community and privacy in facebook – the sense that it is a room, rather than a public noticeboard – that I didn’t feel with usenet. Posting something to usenet was clearly, and conspicuously public. I suffered no illusions that all kinds of random people were reading it, many of them silently. Lurking is nothing new. But somehow facebook conveys a different impression of itself. To me, at least.

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