Living room and fishbowl: On Facebook and semi-privacy

I have (for the time being, at least) a Facebook account. I signed up for it because all my real-life friends and acquaintances were on it, and because all of the people I'm closest to live at least a hundred miles away. Coworkers from former jobs in cities I've moved away from, college and grad school classmates, a far-flung handful of friends from the blogosphere — the great appeal of Facebook is that it's a low-energy way to keep up with people you don't see every day. After you use it for a while, email begins to seem clunky and archaic; it's so much easier to have a multi-person conversation with long-distance friends via status updates.

But the other great appeal of Facebook is, or rather, was, that you could limit access to what you posted. Matt McKeon has a fantastic visualization of the gradual erosion of privacy in Facebook's settings over the years, with more and more information being visible not just to Facebook users but to the whole web. It's based on this timeline from the Electronic Frontier Foundation; in a post at Wired, Ryan Singel spells out some more of the implications. To say that Facebook's disregard for its users' privacy is creepy and invasive is, if anything, to understate the case.

What Facebook founder Mark "Privacy? What does that word mean?" Zuckerberg completely fails to understand (or, perhaps, just doesn't care about) is that people want to be social online, but they often want to be social with a limited subset of other people. This blog is a public space; so is my Twitter feed. But just because I'm willing to say some things to the entire interwebs doesn't mean I want to say everything to everyone. For someone who spends a lot of time online, I have a fairly high privacy threshold; ideas and opinions are one thing, but when I want to talk to friends about my personal life, I want a restricted-access space to do it in.*

There's a moment in William Gibson's Pattern Recognition where Cayce, the main character, reflects the privacy of her favorite online forum: "The site had come to feel like a second home, but she'd always known that it was also a fishbowl; it felt like a friend's living room, but it was a sort of text-based broadcast, available in its entirety to anyone who cared to access it."** It's a feeling a lot of us probably recognize: the intimacy that comes from a good conversation with friends, combined with the awareness that potentially anyone can eavesdrop.*** There's a definite need for semi-public spaces where you can have the conversation but still keep the eavesdroppers out.

A while back, via Chuck Tryon on Twitter, I came across a nifty article by Lee Humphreys comparing microblogging to early American diaries, which (like Twitter) were full of telegraphically short entries on the minutiae of daily life, and which were also, interestingly enough, sometimes shared with friends and family. Which suggests that the desire to share details of one's life with selected people, but not necessarily the whole world, is nothing new.

There are some encouraging projects underway by people who want better privacy controls in their online social networks. In the meantime, the only reason I still have a Facebook account is because I started a page
for MPOW and I feel obligated to maintain it. I've deleted most of my personal information from Facebook, and as soon as a viable, open, privacy-aware alternative comes along, I'm dropping Facebook entirely.

[Update: The people at The Onion, in their inimitable way, explain why you should be worried about privacy on Facebook:

Facebook, Twitter Revolutionizing How Parents Stalk Their College-Aged Kids]

* I've considered starting a Livejournal and friends-locking everything,
but I don't know if I have the writing energy to do that and maintain
this blog. What I want is a platform where you can just post quick bits and specify who can see them. Which was what I liked about Facebook, originally. If any of you know of something like that, I'd love to hear about it.

** William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (New York: G. Putnam's Sons, 2003), 65.

*** Incidentally, this is what a lot of the critics of Twitter get
wrong: Twitter users aren't broadcasting what they (or their
) had for breakfast because they really think everyone on the
internet wants to know; in the words of
one Twitter user
, "people don't
blog/tweet/etc because they think the whole world cares. They do it
because some tiny, kindred subset might
." They're just
using a public forum to do it, and assuming that people will skip over the tweets they don't care about instead of pitching a hissy fit about Kids These Days and Their Web 2.0 Narcissism.

3 Responses to “Living room and fishbowl: On Facebook and semi-privacy”

  1. Meilee says:

    I have an LJ account but never post to it anymore. I started it mainly to post funny or semi-interesting things I saw on the Web and to parody those ridiculous email surveys I used to get. But I had it locked down to friends because of spammers, and I only had two LJ friends, so the blogging aspect of it became kind of pointless. I mainly use it like an RSS feed now to quickly access Dinosaur Comics, Wondermark, xkcd, etc. I now post the links I used to post there on FB.

  2. ChrisTheRed says:

    It’s funny, I posted something similar to FB tonight (yes, yes, the irony does not escape). My read on the situation is that until it’s no longer to their pecuniary advantage to behave with our data like coked up day traders on a Tijuana bender, that’s exactly what they’re going to do.
    To borrow from a classic SNL bit: We’re Facebook. We don’t care, because we don’t have to.

  3. LieYu says:

    great share about “Living room and fishbowl: On Facebook and semi-privacy”