Chapter 90: The ‘new’ Facebook and the reality of an Online World

As a brief introduction, Facebook is a social networking site primarily aimed at college students. It lets you post a profile listing contact information, lists of favorites, your general political leanings, etc. More importantly, it also lets you become ‘friends’ with someone. This process involves sending an invitation to another member to become your friend, and if the other member accepts you will both be put on each other’s respective friend lists. You can even decide you want to list your relationship information. You send a ‘relationship’ request to your better half, which they can accept or deny. If accepted, your profile a tag called “In a relationship with:” and will then show your boy/girlfriends’ name with a link to their profile.

Up until very recently, all the information that could be gleaned from your profile (name, high school, college, e-mail, phone number, AIM name, relationship status, circle of friends, personal website, political leanings, clubs, organizations, job, etc) were passively displayed on a page that anyone that was friends with you could see.

But then Facebook decided they wanted to aggregate all changes your friends make to thier profiles and actively display it on your start page. They did this as a time saving measure for the user, and, not surprisingly, people freaked out.

Keep in mind, the information is the same, and the same people can view it. The only difference is that now, instead of having to navigate to someone else’s profile to see any changes they make, Facebook lists them on your home page. Let’s look at an example listing (the names were changed to protect the guilty):

Jennifer Aniston went from being “single” to “in a relationship”. 6:08pm
William Gates added “pie” to his favorite foods. 8:59pm
Bill Murray and Bobby Digital are now friends. 10:06pm

This scares people. Instead of Bill Clinton reading about my listed relationship to Ann Coulter only when he reads my profile, now when I decide to ‘cancel’ the relationship he will read about it on his main page the very next time he logs on.

This clearly constitutes an invasion of privacy … except that it doesn’t.

The same information is given to the same people. No information that was private before is public now, and no one who couldn’t read about your love of the movie “Space Cowboys” can suddenly read about it. The difference is people’s misconceptions between the passive and active distribution of personal details.

Most people are willing to pour their heart and soul into a personal blog because they view it as a passive publication, somewhat akin to publishing a book by putting it on the back shelf of a public library. Anyone can walk there and see it, but you have to make an effort and already know it’s there.

An active distribution method would be putting a copy in everyone’s home mailbox, or shouting it from the rooftops with a loudspeaker. If I find your blog from a Google search and e-mail the link to a couple hundred of my close personal friends, it might make me an asshole, but it certainly doesn’t constitute an invasion of privacy. You said what you did in a public forum, and you cannot complain if people show up to listen.

In my opinion, the new Facebook change is the best thing that could possibly happen to social networking sites. There is no difference between an ‘active’ or a ‘passive’ distribution of personal details in regards to an assumption of privacy. It’s still distribution. Before people could delude themselves into thinking that the personal details they divulged were somewhat protected by the nature of requiring a user to explicitly visit their page. The change forces people to think about every small edit they make, from adding a friend to adding a hobby, as now being visible (even broadcasted) to everyone they know.

If you’re not comfortable sharing a personal detail/website with everyone you know, don’t publish it.

P.S. You can send this to my mom.

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