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Facebook, Privacy & Alienation

The Facebook IPO last month was more than just another chance to offer one’s own “take” (although it was certainly that as well). Facebook’s appearance on the stock market reframed the question of whether the social network will actually be around for a while. Will Facebook keep growing, or has it already peaked? Formerly topics of idle speculation, these questions are now bets upon which billions of dollars ride.

I suspect Facebook is closer to its peak than many realize, and I see no reason why it must stay relevant forever. One reason for my pessimism is the widespread dissatisfaction I detect among friends, people I talk to, and commentary I read on the Internet, which differs noticeably from the enthusiasm that Facebook inspired in its salad days. Of course, we all still use it, but many of us do so out of grudging necessity. To me, that suggests that someone will eventually create something better and erode Facebook’s dominance.

Facebook has become more alienating since its creation and privacy is a central reason for that shift. Since Facebook is increasingly the infrastructure of social life, this development should concern us. Specifically, Facebook’s privacy controls degrade the flow of information between real friends and foster a culture of solipsism.

Privacy is the great paradox of the Internet. Most people won’t participate in something like Facebook without some control over the privacy of what they share, yet the Internet itself is built for the unfettered spread of content. Information wants to be free, which means it also wants to be shared. Privacy settings go against the grain of the Internet. This is most obvious on Twitter, where the crude privacy setting that is available—the locked account—seems pointless when actually used.

Mark Zuckerberg is smart enough to understand that Facebook needs a sophisticated menu of privacy settings that will satisfy even the most nuanced specifications. Control of privacy makes people feel comfortable joining Facebook who would otherwise find it sketchy, and more importantly, it makes them feel comfortable sharing information freely once they join. Facebook needs to grow, especially now that it’s a public company, but Zuckerberg himself has said that privacy is becoming obsolete. Right now, he’s just humoring us until we catch up to the future.

Facebook’s advanced privacy comes at a cost that is likely invisible to many Facebook users: When you look at a friend’s Facebook profile, you never know which version you’re seeing. It’s possible to adjust one’s account so that distinct groups and even specific people cannot see certain aspects of a profile; consequently, you never know what’s hidden when you look at the profile of a friend or stranger. If you’re on Facebook, the only definitive version of a profile is your own, and everyone but yourself has to guess how much you’re showing them. Twitter’s simplistic approach to privacy, by contrast, leaves no question about what you’re missing. You either see everything or nothing.

In information theory, the most important aspect of a communication channel is the likelihood that the message received matches the message sent. On Facebook, the illegibility of other people’s privacy settings introduces a mismatch: As you browse a friend’s profile, you’re never quite sure what message the friend “sent” or how much information the privacy settings filtered out. It may not have been much, but you don’t know. The ability to precisely control who sees what on a network that supposedly represents your social life is a significant departure from how we interact in the “real world,” and to me, it’s one of Facebook’s most alienating features. When each of us gets a slightly different version of reality, why should we believe that we all inhabit the same one?

One Comment on “Facebook, Privacy & Alienation”

  1. […] environments in which individuals immerse themselves for hours at a time. I’ve written here and here about the different environments that Facebook and Twitter create and the behaviors that […]

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