Chances are you wouldn't tell grandma about the wild party you went to last Saturday night. Likewise, you might have spent Sunday evening at home knittin' a mitten and only feel secure enough in your manhood to share pictures of your fiber craft with family. While real life communication lets us share different things with different people, online social networking has tended to have two modes: public or private.
Last week, Facebook announced a move to support a much more sophisticated understanding of privacy that's more like what real people have in real life. It's a major shift in how Facebook works. We think the initial reporting on the news missed the point (ours certainly did) and the new privacy features are poorly implemented so far - but the changes being made on Facebook are important.
When Facebook announced last week that users will now have a new set of privacy options for sharing content, we got the story wrong. We thought everyone's shared items were going to be changed to public by default, but Facebook HQ emailed to tell us that only people with public profiles would see that happen. Those are the only people to see the new interface so far. Users whose privacy settings are set to friends only will maintain that as their default setting in the future, the company says.
We think most other reports on the news missed a key point, too, though. Everyone focused on the new option for shared messages to be publicly visible outside the constraints of a Facebook user's friends network - people called it a shot at the wide open paradigm of Twitter. In fact, the biggest change may be that sharing options are becoming much more granular - more human.
A Different Understanding of Privacy
How can anything shared on the internet be considered private? University of Massachusetts-Amherst Legal Studies student Chris Peterson tackles the contemporary reality of privacy on Facebook in a very readable new draft thesis paper titled Saving Face: The Privacy Architecture of Facebook (PDF).
Peterson argues that the idea that anything published ought to be understood as intended for public distribution is an antiquated understanding from the era when publishing was expensive and required a lot of effort. The opposite is true today. Likewise, Peterson argues that the dominant legal framework today "recognizes as private only that which is completely secret."
Instead, Peterson says that a more appropriate understanding of privacy today is based on context. We expect our communication to go on in an appropriate context (no drinking in church or praying in the bar) and we expect to understand how our communication will be distributed. If a college friend took photos of you drinking in a bar and showed them off to people in church, you might feel your privacy has been violated in both appropriateness and distribution. The bar is a public place, though, and not completely secret. Thus the need for a more sophisticated understanding of privacy that is more than mere secrecy.
Privacy on Facebook
Facebook to date has not supported such a sophisticated understanding. It has prided itself in talking about privacy and limiting visibility of user messages to a user's friends. Are all your friends in one big bucket, though, in real life? Now that grandma, the boss, younger siblings, clergy, cops, creeps and others are all on Facebook - the only safe way to communicate in this all-or-nothing privacy environment is to be very bland and only share things that will be appropriate for everyone.
"...the privacy architecture of Facebook destroys contextual integrity, because almost every aspect of its design directly con?icts with norms of distribution." Peterson writes. "The way information ?ows through Facebook is nothing at all like the way information ?ows through the corporeal world. It is an 'environment that is fundamentally unnatural, in con?ict with the one we evolved to live in.' This tension between individual and environment causes the most common privacy problems experienced by members of Facebook...Facebook is a 'system that communicates everything to everyone at the same time' and in the same space."
Now: The New Privacy on Facebook
Perhaps no longer! The new Facebook publishing feature lets users share things with just a particular list of their friends. (Or with the public at large if they so choose.) The contexts are un-collapsed. Communication is human again. That's a very big deal and is the kind of change that could make far more people comfortable sharing far more information about their lives on Facebook. It's also a feature that no major competitor (namely Twitter) offers.
Facebook may be solving one of the biggest problems in social networking - the unnaturally uncontrollable nature of communication. This new feature is clearly still in its infancy; even users who are able to control who sees their messages can't control visibility of other actions, like joining groups. Mobile clients remain dumb "all or nothing" publishing tools when it comes to privacy.
Once this feature is rolled out to all Facebook users, we expect that group creation and curation will become more common activities and we also expect that net effect on public messaging will be a big increase. There may be something in it for everyone, privacy minded people, people who want to discuss things in appropriate contexts and conversation scientists wanting more public messaging to analyze.
Too Bad It's So Confusing
Unfortunately, it's very difficult to manage the new privacy settings as they are currently constituted. Several members of our staff struggled to make changes to message-specific and default privacy settings really stick. The feature is confusing if not outright broken. A lot of messages intended for limited distribution are going to be sent out wider than the author intended. That's not good.
Ultimately some more clarity around just what Facebook wants to do with privacy would be really helpful. The company tends to talk in very simple terms to its users but has recently hired professional lobbyists in both the US and Europe to advance its privacy agenda. But what is that agenda?
From the UK Guardian last week:
According to Chris Kelly, the Californian web company's chief privacy officer, the five-year-old startup has been engaging in talks with government officials in various countries for some time, but its growing size and importance means it is essential they "understand our philosophy".
He said: "There is a concern we've had for some time that - in a well-meaning attempt to protect consumers - legislators or regulators would end up passing laws that would keep people from the beneficial sharing of information."
We emailed Facebook last week to ask "what is that philosophy?" and the usually responsive communications team there has sent no reply. Update:
This newest change in the privacy options for sharing content on Facebook represents a major change to the nature of communicating on the site. If it's implemented well it could make a dramatic difference in the way people use the site. Given the change underway and the company's move to lobby governments around the world in favor of its privacy philosophy, we think it would be a good idea to have a more thorough public conversation about what that philosophy is.