Facebook privacy: Neither hard to get nor a big deal

I’m a little late to the party as far as talking about Facebook’s privacy issues goes, but no biggie. Let’s be honest about something up front, no what your personal stand on these issues is, you can’t say that the move was surprising. Facebook tried to use “pages” to get people to publicly flaunt their interests, but most people either didn’t use the feature, or didn’t use it in the way Facebook hoped. So, they took the next step and did away with private interests. Now, if you want to share with your friends that you love Dave Matthews and Dancing with the Stars, you have to make that knowledge public. On some aesthetic level, the compartmentalization of your interests into pre-created categories is somehow unappealing, but that’s about as far as I’m willing to complain. Purely from a privacy perspective, I really don’t think that companies being able to find out that we like this or that TV show is some death knell for our ability to express ourselves safely (but keep reading if you disagree with me, in the second to last paragraph I’ll offer you a way out).

I think a driving force behind the huge reaction was our conflating the actual impact of the drop in privacy with some of our gut instincts about advertising. Especially for people who came of age with the Internet, advertising is like the venereal disease of the internet. In the late 90s, before Gmail, if you started sticking your e-mail in text boxes where it didn’t belong, your inbox would be overflowing with spam the next day. Frequent travelers will also understand what I’m talking about: if you don’t want people hassling you in third-world markets, you look down and don’t respond to any questions. Basic lesson: you give an inch, they take a mile. I think this lesson gets applied to Facebook – as soon as advertisers know we love Dave Matthews, we have this instinctual fear that our world, internet and otherwise, will become a deluge of Dave Matthews promotions (scary even if for some reason you do like Dave Matthews).

I’m as much in favor of caution as anyone, but I think we have to ask ourselves how much advertising we run the risk of receiving if Facebook sells our data. The answer is probably none more than we receive now. Every inch of cyberspace that could host a profitable ad probably already does. Facebook couldn’t flood their website with flashing ads because people would stop using it. So the only real difference is that it will be targeted. I’m not going to go so far as to say that this might actually be advantageous, and I can see how for people with poor self-control it might become a problem, but for most of us it won’t make that much of difference. Instead of some generic ad (when I load my profile I get an invitation to start a Toy Story 3 party), you’ll get a targeted one for Dave Matthews tickets. Big deal. The important thing is not to conflate the nature of the advertising (generic, targeted) with the quantity of advertising. If you do that, you’ll realize that there isn’t necessarily a connection between companies getting our Facebook info and the Infinite Jest-esque, corporate dystopias where good, loving people are turned into consumerist zombies by hyper-precise marketing.*

What I find even more surprising than the backlash to the new privacy policies is how few people take any practical steps about it. The one that has boggled me for a while is how many people put their birthdays on their profile. If you’re concerned about cyber security, your birthday is the one piece of data that actually gets used as validation, for anything ranging from logging into Facebook from an unusual IP address to validating your identity when you call a bank. More relevant to the recent privacy changes, if you want to tell people the movies and music you love without making it public, why not just stick all that information in your “bio”? It’s the last text box that you can keep private, so just recreate your profile in it. Type out “Favorite Movies: ” and just list them. Bam. Privacy problem fixed.

And this is where I think the real heart of the issue is. In the end, no one will probably go through the trouble. Whether because we like using things the way they’re supposed to be used, or because Facebook’s privacy policy doesn’t actually influence our lives in any tangible way, or, most likely, some combination of the two, 99% of people will just keep going with the flow, even in light of easy existing fixes. That doesn’t make for heated theoretical debates about privacy and corporations, but maybe that’s a sign that as a society we’re blowing the whole thing a little out of proportion.

* If anything, I would say that our general cultural skepticism towards advertising (at least compared to earlier generations), as well as our access to more (and more varied) sources of information makes the doomsday scenario unlikely. Read this excellent piece on how De Beers fabricated a nationwide obsession with sparkly carbon – do you think they could pull this off today? A valid counterexample is how popular “light” versions of  beer are compared to regular beers. Somehow Budweiser, Coors, Amstel and Miller manage to get frat boys to buy beer that has less actual beer and less alcohol for the SAME EXACT PRICE. Shoot me.


2 Responses to “Facebook privacy: Neither hard to get nor a big deal”

  1. 1 David(p) June 10, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    JSC5 I like this piece and agree with you. I actually find myself often very conflicted about these issues. On the one hand I work at an online advertising agency, on the other hand, I scold my friends for feeling the need to announce their new iphones on facebook (wtf is up with JSC7 pimping his new phone all over google buzz?).

    Anyway, we should hang out.

    • 2 JSC7 June 10, 2010 at 10:36 pm

      It’s JSC5 who is pimping his phone all over Google buzz, and JSC7 who is delivering all this insightful content, but other than that, yes, we should hang out. Plate tectonics shrinking the Pacific ocean will make it happen eventually.

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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