Facebook and privacy: less is better

Making the Web social by default would be a vaccine against Internet Tough Guy Syndrome.
Matt W. Bowman | May 3 2010 | comment  



There has been quite an outcry against Facebook’s recent changes to its privacy policies. Four senators have gotten into the act, asking CEO Mark Zuckerberg to reconsider recent decisions to share much of users’ personal information with third party sites and the public.

Facebook has weathered many such protests after repeatedly eroding privacy settings. Each time, people eventually adjust their behavior on Facebook and user engagement grows.

It is easy to take issue with Zuckerberg’s tactics of changing the privacy rules and keeping opt-out procedures confusing. It’s even easier to worry about his disregard for privacy, both rumored  and proven, and I don't blame anyone who wants to shore up their privacy settings. But I hope he wins. I hope Zuckerberg achieves his goal of making the Web “social by default," and that our Facebook identities follows us around the Net without our asking for it. Here’s why:

The default will be accountability. The tone of comments and conversations on the Web is notoriously crass. Slanderous misinformation and propaganda from nameless sources abound. A culture of anonymous trolling encourages people to duck responsibility for the accusations and insults they make, depriving the accused of the right to know and confront an accuser. Facebook’s changes could instill a subconscious awareness that when you browse the web and post opinions, it’s all done in public, which would act as a vaccine for the Internet Tough Guy Syndrome.

It will level the playing field (a little). Your Facebook info was never fully private. It has always been accessible by the government (via the Patriot Act) and folks at Facebook itself. Zuckerberg is known to have tapped personal info unethically for personal gain in the early days of the company.

Then there are the broader implications for social and political influence. Info about social graphs, affiliations and preferences is hugely useful for political and ideological projects. Does Facebook have political ambitions? It's no secret that Chris Hughes, who cofounded the company with Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz in 2004, left active Facebook duties in 2007 to run the online campaign for a then little-known senator from Illinois who now works in the White House.

If Facebook pushes to make more and more info public, then it will be easier for others to reap some of the value from social graph information that now redounds to the benefit of a few insiders.

Solo entertainment is deranging a huge number of us. Time was when people would gather together for recreation. The family would huddle round the TV (I know, it’s a bit pathetic that one can now feel nostalgia for the positive influence of the tube), young adults would go out to bars, kids would play basketball. To have fun, you did things together.

The amount of time now spent behind closed bedroom doors playing video games and looking at porn is pretty disgusting. Smart families have placed computers in public areas of the home to counteract the hermitifying effects of the Internet, but a more integral solution would be welcome. If the Net does become more social by default—if you know you’ll bump into friends as soon as you open the browser—then the screen could be less of a debilitating drug porting users off to some anonymous fantasy land, and a bit more like the real world, where people recognize you.

It would be more like Cheers, where--remember?-- "everybody knows your name." For those who didn't grow up in the 1980s, that was once considered to be a good thing.

Matt Bowman is a freelance reporter on technology news who formerly served in the Teach For America Corp. He writes from Menlo Park, California. 



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