09 May 2010

Sharing versus going public

Jeff Jarvis gives an excellent analysis of the distinction between sharing information in more or less known communities (which is what most people thought they were doing on Facebook) and going public (which is what Facebook's step-by-step erosion of privacy, the latest being the publication of 'like' profiles, is leading them to). As Jarvis points out, one of the qualities of Facebook was the way it allowed people to select who they share with. Initially it was perceived as 'a place for friends', giving more control than its predecessor, MySpace. But these days, unless you're smart with your privacy settings, information you publish can go much further than your 'friends'.

danah boyd makes the same point (and many more), in a superb talk to the WWW conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her general point is that people make information about themselves public, to be encountered in a specific context. But 'Big Data' gatherers are insensitive to that context, collecting data in ways that do not represent the individual's intentions and violate their privacy.

According to boyd, Facebook's use of peoples' personal information is not the problem; it's the way it has been introduced and the lack of control it gives individuals over the information they publish:

The goal is to give people a more personal web experience. But users don’t understand how it works, let alone how to truly turn it off. And Facebook doesn’t make it easy to opt-out entirely; you have to opt-out to each partner site individually on Facebook and on the partner site. And your friends might still leak your information. Social Plugins and Instant Personalizer aren’t inherently bad things, but they rely on people making their data public. They rely on the December changes
[a dialogue box presented to users in December which gave them the option of keeping their privacy settings] that no one understood. And for this reason, all sorts of people are making their content extremely accessible without knowing it, without choosing to do it, and without understanding the consequences.

Jarvis notes Business Insider's comment: 'on-line privacy is the new 'programming a VCR''. But this simply isn't true. Early VCR controls were the product of ignorance: built by engineers with themselves in view as end users. That's a problem Facebook doesn't have. It could have ensured clarity in the introduction of changes to privacy settings, but it has chosen not to (and has a history of making such choices). Jarvis attributes Facebook's changes to a simple lack of understanding of the private and public domains of people's lives. Well, if, charitably, that's the case, it's now time to take the users' perspective and design privacy settings to give choice and transparency.

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