CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized this week to Facebook users in a Washington Post editorial, conceding “we move quickly to serve that community with new ways to connect with the social Web and each other. Sometimes we move too fast.” That’s quite an apology — saying sorry for not going more slowly while betraying user trust. As the Wall Street Journal’s John Paczkowski observes: “By saying ‘we move too fast,’ Zuckerberg isn’t admitting that Facebook was headed in the wrong direction with respect to user privacy; he’s saying Facebook was headed in [the] right direction all along, just a bit too quickly — for those of us with reasonable expectations of privacy, anyway.”
In “Facebook Privacy? Who Cares?,” Mark Cuban positions this as merely a media issue: “Facebook privacy is very simple at its core. You joined because you wanted to give up some of your privacy in exchange for the benefits that Facebook offers. If you think it’s a problem, de-activate your account. If you think it’s a problem, but really want to be on FB, RTFM (Read the Frickin’ Manual). The functionality is there.”
Harumph. When I signed up, I did give up some of my privacy in exchange for the benefits of the sharing Facebook offers. And, though I was annoyed with each change that made public things that I had designated as private, I knew how to update my privacy settings. I’m guessing most of the 400 million users aren’t as tech savvy as Cuban and would appreciate some simple notification on what these changes mean for them. Social networks and online communities are new concepts — some people I know are even going to graduate school to study it — and most people are simply unaware of the ramifications of these changes.
Cuban argues “you can’t share information with strangers in hopes of possibly adding them to your social network and then bitch about the lack of privacy,” but this wasn’t my reason for joining Facebook. Cuban has 78,083 “friends,” while I have somewhere south of 200 (but I’m really great at parties). Cuban is a public figure using Facebook as a free media outlet, as many users do. However, others like myself are either sharing with smaller networks or just trying to figure out which Gilligan’s Island character we most resemble (sadly, it’s the Professor and not Thurston Howell III). We were never looking for targeted ads based on what we thought were our private conversations.
I also disagree with Cuban when he says, “the complaints about FB privacy are pretty much a joke. It’s a social network, not your voting record.” Putting aside the fact that your party affiliation and whether you voted in a recent election is a matter of public record, the recent Facebook changes and corresponding increase in transparency came about ONLY because of the vigilance of tech leaders and bloggers. Let’s hope the tech leaders and bloggers continue to keep a watchful eye on Facebook because they’ve consistently proven themselves to be, at best, careless with our private profile information.
I do think Cuban is ultimately right though — if you have a problem with Facebook’s view of your privacy, you are free to de-activate anytime. As I’ve said in a previous post, the best defense is for users to assume that anything posted on Facebook could be made public. In the meantime, I’m marveling that Facebook is a business so powerful it can betray my trust repeatedly and still have me reluctant to take Cuban’s advice and de-activate the social profile I’ve created. I believe THAT is Facebook’s brilliance — getting us to willingly give up our privacy incrementally with every change (albeit, with some kicking and screaming) in order to have better features for sharing who we are and what we like. We’re trading privacy for innovation. Ironically, as Facebook tests our trust, their innovation is supposed to create a more valuable Web, based on what we are sharing with those we trust, rather than simple Google searches. I wonder if there a “tipping point” where our trust will be betrayed too many times and we jump off this juggernaut of a friend ship.
*Tip of the hat to Linda Obst.