The Privacy Virus

I’ve been thinking recently about social networking services and privacy. Certainly, they raise profiling and investigation concerns that seem quite familiar from debates about ISP and search engine surveillance. I’m becoming increasingly convinced, however, that they also present some quite distinctively social privacy issues. The flow of information within a Facebook or a LiveJournal both is deeply embedded in a particular set of social relationships and also regularly defies the expectations of the participants in those relationships. Hilarity, or rather privacy trouble, regularly ensues.

One of things I did when starting to ponder these privacy problems was to make a list of the ways in which social networking services encourage users to supply personal information. There are actually quite a few. Here’s an incomplete list:

  • Explicit appeals to reciprocity: If someone tries to add you as a friend, it seems impolite to refuse.
  • Implicit appeals to reciprocity: If friends have pictures on their pages, you’re spurning their social advances if you don’t have pictures on your page.
  • Norming the network as “private” space: Facebook started on a college campus; people use it in ways that recreate the informality of students scribbling jokes on whiteboards posted to each others’ dorm-room doors.
  • Norming the network as “safe” space: It’s hard to estimate the risk that releasing a little private information now will bite you later, so we use our peers’ actions as a heuristic to tell us whether it’s safe to speak freely here. If they share, you share.
  • Creating a barter economy in personal information: By affiliating with new groups and adding more friends, you decrease the distance between you and others. That means more access: it opens up more profiles to your inspection (and vice-versa).
  • Encouraging status competition: Facebook helpfully lists how many friends your friends have; can you blame Robert Scoble for wanting to have more than 5,000?

I could go on, but have you noticed the common pattern? All of these mechanisms use other people’s personal information to convince you to supply more of your own. Facebook is a privacy virus: an organism that reproduces itself within a social network by convincing infected hosts to use their own replication mechanisms to spread it to others. And the way it gets past our privacy defense mechanisms is to turn them against us: social network service interactions have almost all the indicia we look for in reassuring ourselves that we’re in a private setting, rather than out in public.

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3 Responses

  1. Rick says:

    The worst part of Facebook is the “Newsfeed” feature. If you update your profile, send someone a video, add a friend or do a whole host of activities on Facebook, everyone on your friends list will be notified. They can even view the video you sent to someone else. Unless you are aware this is a function you could ruin your life.

  2. Facebook is a tool. It actually has very fine grained privacy settings. You can set privacy for each set of information to “Everyone”, “Friends & Networks”, “Friends & Friends of Friends”, “Friends Only”, or Custom. Custom allows you to create groups. This applies to your news feed as well as your profile information. Each “application” you add also has privacy settings.

    The defaults are fairly open, but just like anywhere else, you must manage your privacy. If you are not interested in sharing your information, then perhaps Facebook isn’t the place for you. It’s entirely voluntary and can be a good way to keep track of old friends who have scattered all over the country.

    It’s not a “virus”, it’s a highly customizable social networking tool. Just like any other tool, you can hurt yourself with it.

    Also, just like anywhere else, if you follow the simple rule of not being an a$$, you protect yourself from a lot of harm.

  3. I’m not sure its as much about information coercion as it is taking advantage of semantics. The question is: What is “a friend”? Is a work friend the same as a college friend the same as a colleague, the same as a cousin? You need to make this choice each time you get a friend request which is your point one. You also have to assume that you can’t identify all your “friends” in advance, so you need to leave yourself open to “friend requests” with enough info to let people in a variety of networks find you (high school classmates), but maybe not let some people find you (bosses, parents). This information is binary– either open to everyone or noone. But to take advantage of the “blurry edge” of your social network, it needs to be out there. The previous commentors post about Facebook’s tools to limit some viewership is true. But this is where the coercion occurs, because now you need to “rate” your friends; perhaps easy for boss or parents but impossible for others. So if a work colleague allows you to see her baby’s pictures, it is hard not to reciprocate. We’re not very skilled at allotting our friends to categories, and the architecture creates incentives to follow the “friend” with the most liberal share policy or seem rude (back to your point one).