How Useful is Facebook Users’ Information?

A lot has been written on Facebook and its users loss of privacy. In fact, for some, Facebook and loss of privacy have become synonyms. A major fear involves the use of Facebook users’ personal information by information aggregators who will use the data to target the sale of products.  I do not intend to contest here that Facebook users disclose a lot of personal information. But, I want to look at how accurate is the information that Facebook users reveal on Facebook. 

When people surf the Internet their personal information, websites and searches are collected by cookies. As I have written, people tend to disregard these privacy threats at least partly due to their lack of visibility. Even those who know that their information can be collected by cookies, tend to forget it as they use the Internet on a daily basis.  As a result the information collected by cookies reveals relatively true preferences. Cookies will reveal embarrassing or secret facts, such as visits to pornography sites or to  medical sites to investigate a worrying medical condition.

But Facebook is different. Facebook users are constantly aware they are being viewed. True, they may not be thinking about the companies that may eventually aggregate the information. But, for sure they are thinking of the hundreds of friends who will be reading their status updates, examining their favorite books, favorite movies and linked websites. Facebook users “package” themselves. They present themselves to the world the way they want to be perceived. Their real preferences and tastes may be somewhat or even completely different from those they present on Facebook. A criminal law professor may have in her Facebook library collection legal theory books, while in fact in her spare time she is an avid purchaser and reader of chick lit books. A twenty year old college student may want to appear cool placing links to trendy music, although his real passion remains the collection of Star Wars figures.

Some information on Facebook, such as date of birth or marriage status is less likely to be mispresented by users and provides rich ground for data mining.  But Facebook users “packaging”  raises two issues. Companies seeking to target consumers with products they actually want to purchase may find Facebook information less useful than believed. And from a privacy perspective, it is not merely the disclosure of true personal information that we should be concerned about but the creation of false or misleading  individual profiles by data mining companies that can eventually change the information and consumption options available to these Facebook users.

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4 Responses

  1. Gordon Hull says:

    This is an interesting thought. It seems to me that there’s really two questions here: (1) whether, as an empirical matter, FB users are truthful in what they disclose. My sense is that they are – so one paper, for example, reported that students who use FB are highly confident (4.1-4.2 on a likert scale) that their profile is both accurate and presents them favorably. This is probably because almost all of the research indicates that they use FB to keep up and support offline social networks, rather than creating new ones. So, whereas I might almost totally fabricate my identity on a online dating site, a FB identity is more tethered to the offline world. Now, the sort of massaging of one’s profile that you talk about – saying I like law books when I’d rather read something else – might fit with this data and also throw off marketers. But it seems like an empirical question.

    (2) There’s a separate question about design – whether FB encourages the sorts of forgetfulness that let users allow cookies on their computers. Some colleagues and I’ve just finished a paper where we argue that Facebook’s architecture – our example is Applications – heavily encourage users not to notice the extent of their privacy risk.

    Finally, there’s a recent paper that says privacy and disclosure preferences may not correlate because users categorize them differently – disclosure is about popularity, and so doesn’t, for many users, get psychologized as the antithesis of privacy.

    My paper (sorry – don’t know how to embed links in comments): “Contextual Gaps: Privacy Issues in Facebook,” Ethics and Information Technology, forthcoming;

    For profile accuracy data: Lampe, Cliff, Ellison, Nicole B., and Steinfield, Charles. “A Face(book) in the Crowd: Social Searching vs. Social Browsing,” Proceedings of CSCW’06 (Alberta, 2006), ACM Press, 167-70.

    Example for FB usage motivations: Joinson, Adam N. “’Looking at,’ ‘Looking up,’ or ‘Keeping up with’ People? Motives and Uses of Facebook,” Proceedings of CHI 2008: Online Social Networks (Florence, Italy, 2008), ACM Press, 1027-36

    For different preferences: Christofides, Emily, Muise, Amy, and Desmarais, Serge. “Information Disclosure and Control and Facebook: Are they Two Sides of the Same Coin or Two Different Processes?” Cyberpsychology and Behavior 12:3 (2009), 341-45.

  2. I’ll take a wild stab and say that most FB users aren’t posting fake profiles and adding 100s of fake friends to whom they then post fake status updates. I would venture a guess that, in fact, there is not a whole lot of false personal information posted by users because the FB user knows his friends will vet his info — so the guy who lied on his resume about obtaining a Ph.D in hydrogeology from Stanford is unlikely to publicly post this information for fear of being publicly outed by (a) another Stanford grad, (b) a high school buddy who knows he dropped out of junior college, or (c) a random stranger who realizes that Stanford doesn’t actually offer a Ph.D in hydrogeology and takes offense at the gratuitous lie. When everything you do comes under public scrutiny, lies and secrets will out — just ask any politician (or better yet, his handler).

  3. Gaia Bernstein says:

    Gordon & Robert – thank you for your comments. Just to clarify my point was not that the profiles on Facebook are false or inaccurate but that they are partial – highlighting the parts the individual wants to highlight while omitting parts the individual wants to conceal. So the criminal law professor does read legal theory books – this is not false but she also spends much more of her time reading chick lit. Thus, the end result is often a partial and lopsided profile of the user.

  4. cck says:

    This “packaged” identity is exactly what research companies should be looking at. Take this info, compare w/ other ‘non-packaged’ info from cookies and look for the gap. Design products to fill that gap.