facebook rebellion(?), and potential lessons for other internet communities

So facebook did an update last night, changing it from something that had all the data to enable stalkers, but which made it mildly irritating to do it from their UI, to making it radically easy to find out all sorts of personal information about someone. Lets be utterly, 100% clear- you can’t do anything now that you couldn’t do 48 hours ago. They just made something that had been mildly hidden very, very obvious. In 43 hours, 345,000 people have joined the largest protest group- ‘Students Against Facebook News Feed’. In comparison, the self-titled ‘largest facebook group ever’ has 840,000 members. So that group is huge, growing at an insane rate (over 20K/hour for most of today, has grown by 4,000 while I’ve written this post) and that is only one of many. Clearly putting it in people’s face every time they log in exactly how little privacy they have may have been a mistake for facebook.
There is a pretty straightforward lesson here for anyone building online community- the things you and your power users think are obvious (‘it is already possible to stalk someone, duh!’) may not be obvious to the vast majority of your community members. Surface those issues that are obvious to the core without thinking about the details of how you surface it outside the core and it may well blow up in your face, even if nothing substantive has changed.

NB: there may be another long-term lesson here: people adjust and things blow over sometimes. It will be really interesting to see whether or not that happens in this case, and why. If I had to place a bet, I’d guess that facebook will make some very minor changes (one or two categories might become opt-in instead of opt-out) and the essentially exhibitionist facebook crowd will get used to it. If they do get used to it, that has huge implications for the future of privacy in our society- the majority of an entire generation will have spent very formative years living very, very, very publicly, and that will inevitably influence what they think of privacy as a value in the future.

9 thoughts on “facebook rebellion(?), and potential lessons for other internet communities”

  1. It’s also interesting how various aspects of privacy is viewed in different societies.

    On one hand, in the US it seems it’s perfectly OK to “out” a suspect in a crime before they’ve been sentenced, and to publicly display/shame someone who has committed a crime long after they’ve served their sentence. Such a thing would be seen as an outrage in Sweden (and be a crime as well).

    On the other hand, people’s salaries and other taxeable income are open data in Sweden – with one call you can find out what your coworker or neighbour is making, and there’s even a yearly publication listing the top income earners in the country, ordered by income. This is, if I understand correctly, seen as rather private in the US?

  2. http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/privacy/ has some great posts on this, particularly
    # NSA spying on digital publics
    # erosion of youth privacy – the local panopticon
    # super publics

    Actually I’m somewhat surprised danah hasn’t commented on the facebook move, given one of her categories is “yasns”. Also linked from apophenia three weeks ago: Imagined Communities: Awareness, Information Sharing, and Privacy on the Facebook.

    Also, how did everyone know about these protest groups? They saw their friends joining them through their friends’ news feeds! (stolen from some other blog, can’t remember which sorry).

    That firefox extension looks quite useful – I’d love to have something like that for any webpage.

  3. Jan –

    You are right about salary information in the United States – unless you are a government employee. Then your salary is considered public information under so-called “freedom of information” laws, which are founded on the principle that the governed have the right to freely access information held by the government. There is a resulting tension, not only over salaries but other general types of government information, with government officials resisting public access and journalists and activists pursuing access.

  4. James: they saw it on each other’s feeds, but also every active group I’m in or have visited today has had a discussion thread about this. I’m sure many mention the group. There is definitely rich irony there, though. I’ve seen several panopticon references in the past few days (even before this)- I have Foucault’s Discipline and Punish in my Amazon queue; I’m sure I’ll get to it by 2010. :) I personally am eagerly awaiting what Eszter (who I think is a friend of zephoria’s) has to say about all this.

    Janne: agreed. (The company who shared a floor with Ximian once got in huge trouble for sending a spreadsheet to the whole company with all salaries. I think in this particular case it has to do with the American obsession with money and status.) Besides Americans and Europeans, I think there is a huge gap between young Americans and older Americans- the expectations are very different. But maybe this is one of those defining-ish moments- we’ll see.

  5. Remember singlestat.us– the service that notified you when someone changed their relationship status on MySpace? They got shut down after about two weeks, but I thought it was a great idea. And this feature looked great to me.

    So, honestly, I don’t understand why people are so annoyed by this– it’s just a repackaging of the same information. It’s no more stalkerish than checking people’s pages every damn day, like a lot of subscribers do.

    I mean, if you don’t want someone to know something, don’t put it up on Facebook. Jeez.

  6. […] Tangential to the facebook privacy issues, someone posted on craigslist announcing that they were a female looking for sex. Very predictable results, except that they were a guy, and they posted all the details. Not much substance there, but funny, and maybe a bit scary for our expectations of privacy. […]

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