Facebook privacy flap: Some upsides

By Anne Collier

It’s hard to tell how far-reaching the current social-Web privacy flap will be, but Facebook is certainly working on damage control. In a commentary in today’s Washington Post, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said FB has is responding to calls for simpler privacy controls: “In the coming weeks, we will add privacy controls that are much simpler to use. We will also give you an easy way to turn off all third-party services.” According to a separate Post article, Facebook has moved to close a privacy loophole reported in the Wall Street Journal last week. “Facebook, MySpace and several other social-networking sites have been sending data to advertising companies that could be used to find consumers’ names and other personal details,” the Journal reported, adding that, “after questions were raised by The Wall Street Journal, Facebook and MySpace moved to make changes (ArsTechnica explains it here).

More media literacy? Could it be that social-Web privacy controversy is actually leading to greater media literacy? I think so. A study by UK media regulator Ofcom found that “twice as many UK adults have a social networking profile now [44%], compared to [22%] two years ago and those users are nearly twice as likely to keep their profiles private,” OUT-LAW.com reports. according to research by media and telecoms regulator Ofcom. “The study into media literacy found that 80% of those users now set their profile so that it is only visible to their friends and family. In 2007 that figure was just 48%.” Now we just need to teach and model that kind of privacy literacy for the youngest social networkers (for one thing, by teaching with social media in school – see educator Will Richardson’s blog post in “Related links” below).

Social networking diversifying. In any case, social Web startups are certainly capitalizing on the controversy. The New York Times earlier featured Diaspora and today mentioned a whole passel of social networking upstarts, including Pip.io, OneSocialWeb, Appleseed, Crabgrass, Elgg, and Collegiate Nation. Although some of these may be able to offer more privacy or better control of it, none can offer Facebook’s main attraction (yet, anyway): user aggregation. It’s sort of like Paris Hilton being famous because she’s famous. Facebook’s exponential growth over the past year has been due largely to its exponential growth. It’s so big that it’s where people can find anybody, from long-lost college roommates to third cousins twice removed to birth parents to all of one’s real-life social networks. Because of that, suspect that what’s more likely than a mass migration to any of the above upstarts is gradual diversification. People will keep a profile on Facebook (using the simpler privacy controls the site is rolling out) while socializing with their various real-life social groups (professional, hobby, book, alumni, civic, etc. groups) on sites more suited for them.

Related links

* Help in setting privacy controls from ConnectSafely.org co-director Larry Magid (see article and how-to video in the Huffington Post)
* Teach. Facebook. Now” from educator Will Richardson, who writes, “If you’re on the board of ed, sitting in the superintendent’s chair, serving as principal, or even ‘just’ a parent, how can the following reality not cause you to call a meeting and get Facebook into the curriculum” (see his bullet points for more, but the first one is, “Upwards of 75% of the kids in your high school use Facebook”).
* Teens’ need for new media literacy. In her blog, social-media researcher danah boyd writes, “I was talking with a teenage girl about her privacy settings and noticed that she had made lots of content available to friends-of-friends. I asked her if she made her content available to her mother. She responded with, ‘of course not!’ I had noticed that she had listed her aunt as a friend of hers and so I surfed with her to her aunt’s page and pointed out that her mother was a friend of her aunt, thus a friend-of-a-friend. She was horrified. It had never dawned on her that her mother might be included in that grouping. Over and over again, I find that people’s mental model of who can see what doesn’t match up with reality.”
* More from across the pond: “Lives of others: Facebook and Google face a backlash, from users and regulators alike, over the way they have handled sensitive data” at The Economist
* A new privacy reality: “Social Web privacy: A new kind of social contract we’re all signed onto” and “Checking in on the media shift”

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