[Air-l] Facebook and privacy

danah boyd aoir.z3z at danah.org
Sat Sep 9 17:58:50 PDT 2006

First, on Tom Erickson's points concerning the construction of  
privacy in this situation:  YES YES YES.  And i couldn't agree more  

> While we might call users naive for not understanding how 'privacy'
> works on the internet, we might also call the designers behind  
> Facebook
> naive for not understanding how privacy works in the social world.

I penned a blog essay last night before seeing any of this thread but  
i suspect that what i wrote on privacy in relationship to Facebook  
might be of interest to some folks following this topic.  I hope that  
offering an essay rather than responding to the conversation is  
cooth; apologies if not.  The full essay (with links) is at: http:// 
www.danah.org/papers/FacebookAndPrivacy.html  but i've copied the  
text below for ease of reading.


Facebook's "Privacy Trainwreck": Exposure, Invasion, and Drama

Last night, i asked "Will Facebook learn from its mistake?" In the  
first paragraph, i alluded to a "privacy trainwreck" and then went on  
to briefly highlight the political actions that were taking place. I  
never returned to why i labeled it that way and in my coarseness, i  
failed to properly convey what i meant by this. So let me explain.

Was all of the information in the News Feeds available to users  
before? Yes. That's not the point.

In the tech world, we have a bad tendency to view the concept of  
"private" as a single bit that is either 0 or 1. Either it's exposed  
or not. When companies make a decision to make data visible in a more  
"efficient" manner, there is often a panic. And the term "privacy" is  
often invoked. Think back to when Deja made Usenet searchable. The  
term is also invoked when companies provide new information to you  
based on the data you had previously given it. Think back to the  
shock over Gmail's content-based ad delivery. Neither of these are  
about privacy in the bit sense but they ARE about privacy in a  
different sense.

Privacy is not simply about the state of an inanimate object or set  
of bytes; it is about the sense of vulnerability that an individual  
experiences. When people feel exposed or invaded, there's a privacy  

What happened with Facebook was not about a change in the bit state -  
it was about people feeling icky. It made people felt icky for  
different reasons - some felt it for the exposure while others felt  
it for the invasion. Let me explain.


Have you ever been screaming to be heard in a loud environment when  
suddenly the music stops and everyone hears the end of your sentence?  
And then they turn to stare? I'm guessing you turned beet red. (And  
if you didn't, exposure is not one of your problems.)

When the music was still on, you were still speaking as loudly in a  
room full of people. Yet, you felt protected by the acoustics and you  
made a judgement about how loud you should speak based on the  
understanding of the architecture of the environment. Sure, if  
someone came closer, they could've overheard you. But you didn't care  
because it's not abnormal to be overheard and what you were saying  
wouldn't really matter to them anyhow, right? Security through  

Yet, when the music turned off, you were suddenly overheard by  
everyone in the room. What you were saying should still not matter to  
them, right? But yet you're embarrassed anyhow. You're embarrassed  
because you committed a huge social faux pas. You worry about being  
judged based on what you just said even though just moments before it  
didn't matter if anyone happened to have overhear you. The beet red  
is your body's reaction to the perceived sense of exposure.

On Facebook, people were wandering around accepting others as  
friends, commenting on others' pages, etc. If you're a stalker or an  
anthropologist, you probably noticed that Bob accepted Sally's  
friendship after Justine's. You may have noticed that Ann wrote on  
Heather's page but not on Katherine's and you might have wondered  
why. You may also have caught that QuarterbackTed quietly accepted  
NerdGilbert's friend request. But even you might not have realized  
that your officemate joined the "If this group reaches 100,000 my  
girlfriend will have a threesome" group.

Now, imagine that everyone involved notices all of that. Sally's  
pissed at Bob; Katherine feels rejected; QuarterbackTed panics and  
deletes his friendship. And you feel all weird the next time you talk  
to your officemate. That data was all there before but it was not  
efficiently accessible. The acoustics changed and the social faux pas  
are VERY visible.

I hate to bring up Cobot again but dammit, can't we learn from  
previous mistakes? Cobot was a cute little bot who hung around  
LambdaMoo ages ago. He quietly collected lots of data for the nice  
researchers. He wasn't really invading anyone's privacy, was he? I  
mean, everything that he collected could be overseen by anyone in the  
room. Still, members felt uncomfortable about his silent presence and  
asked that he give something back. So, the nice researchers  
reprogrammed him to answer questions about his observations. Who do i  
talk to the most? Peter. Who does Peter talk to the most? Dan.  
WHAT!?!? Why does Peter talk to Dan more than me? Fuck that, i'm not  
talking to Peter anymore. ... implosion ensues.

Just like with Facebook, all of the data with Cobot was "public."  
Yet, the fact that it wasn't easily accessible made all the  
difference. With Cobot, people ran. With Facebook, i'm terrified to  
click on any buttons for fear of how it might expose me to everyone  
i'm linked to (who i can't even remember anyhow). Sure, those people  
are my "friends" in that i've actually met all of them in life at  
some point. But do i really want to announce to all of them that i'm  
going to leave the "Queer This!" group? No thank you.

Now, i know that after Mark's changes, i can turn all of this  
announcing off. And don't worry, i did. But even that's going to be  
noticeable (and not just because i'm announcing it here). And then  
i'm accountable for hiding. Lovely bones.


I hate feed readers. All of you know that by now. What i hate about  
them is that i want to know everything that everyone's written. And i  
want to see the cool things that they did over the weekend. And i  
want to follow all of the links that they saved. BUT I CAN'T. I don't  
have enough time in the day. As a result, feed readers give me the  
icky feeling of being invaded. And i shudder. And i break down. So i  
turn cold turkey and imagine-spit at all of the people for writing  
all of the interesting things.

Gossip is addictive. There's a voyeur in most of us. You want to know  
what's going on just cuz you can. You want to know all of the good  
little social tidbits. But is it really beneficial for your life to  
do so?

First, it changes your relationships with people. You know a lot  
about them. Worse, your brain is brilliant at pattern recognition and  
it sees stories in the aggregated data that the computer never  
intended. (Pause in remembrance of AOL's fuckup.) Just the presence  
of such data changes your social environment.

Second, Dunbar's 150. That's the maximum number of people you can  
cognitively keep up with. There's only so much gossip you can take or  
your brain explodes. The reason that you can connect to hundreds of  
people on Facebook and actually know them is because you don't really  
know them that well. Or rather, you don't really keep up with their  
lives on a daily basis. Sure, you took a class with them and you  
might want to keep them in your addressbook for future reference  
because you remember that they live in Boise and it'd be useful in  
case you ever ended up in Boise. But normally, you wouldn't pay  
attention to their day-to-day life.

When the data is there, you do pay attention. You're programmed to  
relish gossip; it's in your genes. This is great for Facebook. It  
creates stickiness. But is it good for people? I vote no.

Remember the June article on "Social Isolation in America?" This was  
the one that the press hyped as Americans have fewer friends now than  
they did 20 years ago. When i read this paper, i started wondering if  
social media is dangerous. Here's what i'm thinking.

If gossip is too delicious to turn your back on and Flickr,  
Bloglines, Xanga, Facebook, etc. provide you with an infinite stream  
of gossip, you'll tune in. Yet, the reason that gossip is in your  
genes is because it's the human equivalent to grooming. By sharing  
and receiving gossip, you build a social bond between another human.  
Yet, what happens when the computer is providing you that gossip  
asynchronously? I doubt i'm building a meaningful relationship with  
you when i read your MySpace CuteKitten78. You don't even know that  
i'm watching your life. Are you really going to be there when i need  

Sure, strangers are one thing but what about people you sorta know? I  
have no doubt that strong ties can be maintained through these  
systems, provided that other forms of synchronous engagement  
complement the gossip feed. But i also believe that it gives you a  
fake sense of intimacy for people you don't really know that well.  
And that fake sense of intimacy is both misleading and dreadfully  

At Blogher, i moderated a panel on "Sensitive Topics" and one of the  
things that the panelists said over and over again was how hard it  
was to handle the strangers who contacted them wanting their help.  
The thing is that to those public bloggers, these are strangers...  
but those strangers have been following that blogger's life for quite  
some time, drawing parallels, finding common ground, feeling  
connected. It's a devastating blow to realize that the blogger  
doesn't feel the same way. Without that connection, why should they  
get involved? Often, they do out of a desire to be helpful, a desire  
to not see someone in pain. This is manageable the first few times.  
But what happens when there are new people every day? What happens  
when there are hundreds of people every day?

I still blame myself for the suicide of a young girl. It was a few  
years ago now. My Ani DiFranco page was everyone's resource and every  
day, i got letters from young girls who wanted to tell me about how  
they had been raped by their uncles, who wanted to tell me how they  
cut themselves every day. Dear god, i can't tell you how hard that  
was. I wrote back, i tried to help. I was often behind in my email  
and i was a bad correspondent; they always wrote back in minutes.  
Then there was this girl. She detailed how her mother beat her. She  
told me about her life. She wrote me every day - i wasn't as good at  
responding. And then she started talking about suicide. I encouraged  
her to seek help, i asked her where she lived, i gave her national  
hotline numbers, i tried to find someone at Hotmail who could help  
(but we all know how customer service is). She came up with excuses  
as to why she couldn't. Her letters got more and more desperate. And  
then they stopped. I kept pinging her. Nothing.

The guilt was ravishing. I didn't even know this girl but i felt so  
terrible. I made contacting me on the Ani page much harder. I vowed  
not to start engaging again. I just couldn't handle being involved  
only when strangers were desperate. It was too much.

Being faced with information overload can be a curse. You want to  
react, you want to notice. But it can make you exhausted. Worse, it  
can devastate you.

Facebook is giving me the "gift" of infinite gossip. But i don't want  
it. I can't handle it. And i'm not sure anyone's really ready to  
receive the One Ring. But it sure sounds precious upfront.


Facebook says that the News Feed is here to say. This makes me sad. I  
understand why they want to provide it, i understand what users are  
tempted by it. But i also think that it is unhealthy, socially  
disruptive, and far worse for the users than the lurking employers  
ready to strike down upon thee with great vengeance for the mere  
presence of a red plastic cup.

I also think that it will be gamed. Given a new channel for identity  
performance, people will begin engaging in a new form of impression  
management. They already write wall posts to be seen - it will be  
taken to a new level. Their public displays of connection will take  
on new strength as they seek to make a performance out of the  
friending act. They will remove friendship statuses in the most  
dramatic fashion possible, announcing as far as possible about the  
evilness of the other person. Facebook News Feeds could make LJ drama  
look like child's play.

Students Against Facebook News Feeds has well over 700,000 members  
today. Ben Parr (the moderator) has had his life turned upside down  
and he's feeling the roller coast ride of sudden micro-fame. I  
couldn't help but sigh when i saw his note to members of the group.

     .. My goal is to slowly return to normality, to a time when I  
didn't get called out of a room by CBS, to a time when Time Magazine  
correspondents did not ask for interviews, to a time when I did not  
have fan clubs, and to and a time when I was not demonized because of  

As Ben is experiencing, there is anger and confusion in every  
direction. Many people are pissed and they can't fully articulate  
why. Others are screaming that they're overreacting and that nothing  
changed. When it comes to bits, that's true. But the architecture did  
change this week. And with it, so did the social realities of the  
site. Facebook lost some of its innocence this week. Even when things  
return to "normal," a scar will persist. Yet, the question remains:  
what will the long-term social effects of this "privacy trainwreck" be?

On a related note...

I want to address two other bits of this puzzle: 1) "but you're  
putting personal stuff up on the Internet"; 2) friends lists.

First, on the personal bits, watch MoBuzz's YouTube video. Yes,  
people reveal personal stuff to a website. They know that they  
revealed that information but they still have an assumption about how  
it is to be presented and the ways that make them comfortable and the  
things that make them go ick. This is really about context, context,  
context. As i've said before, there's no way that people can  
comfortably negotiate all contexts at all time. They could retreat  
and go into hyper private mode but what kind of life is that? People  
choose to make risks based on what they assume the architectural  
affordances and norms of a space to be. I think that asking people to  
retreat into paranoia is completely unreasonable. Instead, i think we  
need to find ways of providing reasonable levels of protection and  
comfort, recognizing that there are always risks when you are still  

Second, the friends list. Why does everyone assume that Friends  
equals friends? Here are some of the main reasons why people friend  
other people on social network sites:

    1. Because they are actual friends
    2. To be nice to people that you barely know (like the folks in  
your class)
    3. To keep face with people that they know but don't care for
    4. As a way of acknowledging someone you think is interesting
    5. To look cool because that link has status
    6. (MySpace) To keep up with someone's blog posts, bulletins or  
other such bits
    7. (MySpace) To circumnavigate the "private" problem that you  
were forced to use cuz of your parents
    8. As a substitute for bookmarking or favoriting
    9. Cuz it's easier to say yes than no if you're not sure

The term "friend" in the context of social network sites is not the  
same as in everyday vernacular. And people know this. This is why  
they used to say fun things like "Well, she's my Friendster but not  
my friend." (The language doesn't work out so cleanly on Facebook.)  
The term is terrible but it means something different on these sites;  
it's not to anyone's advantage to assume that the rules of friendship  
apply to Friendship.

- - - - - - - - - - d a n a h ( d o t ) o r g - - - - - - - - - -
"taken out of context i must seem so strange"

musings :: http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts

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