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May 21, 2010

Facebook and Privacy: What Happened?

In this post, Andrea weighs in on Facebook privacy issues…

Yesterday, I read this article on Time.com. And then today, I read this one on WSJ.com. Both articles detail Facebook’s continued struggles with privacy issues.

Andrea WisdorfThese articles frustrate me. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’ve fallen victim to a bait-and-switch bamboozle.

When I first heard about Facebook–THE Facebook, as it was once called–I was a sophomore at the University of South Dakota. I was in Chicago attending a national leadership conference. I remember quite vividly the moment a presenter concluded his presentation by telling the crowd ‘Ok. You can go check your Facebook now.’ A flourish of giggles and a stampede for the door immediately followed.

I didn’t get it. I turned to others from my school and they looked just as confused as I did. I mumbled, ‘What – is Face-book?’

We returned to campus with stories of this magical website that was just for college students, exclaiming ‘No seriously, guys, it’s like a virtual game of six degrees of Kevin Bacon, but only YOU are Kevin Bacon, and OMG you can share messages with people that only other people on Facebook see and everyone gets free ice cream and unicorns!’

(Ok that last part was not true. I got carried away there for a second, in this blog post and in real life.)

We’re pretty persistent in South Dakota (it’s the wind) and so it wasn’t long before our demands to be allowed on this new-fangled social networking site were heard by Facebook and we were allowed a network. Before we knew it, that site had consumed our free time and then all of our time once it added and improved usability.

Post pictures! Share video! Blog! Chat! And so we did. Because we felt safe. Only the people we wanted to see our content could. Our parents didn’t have access, our professors couldn’t see anything unless we Friended them and our future employers weren’t on our minds yet. What’s more, Facebook was about the networks, not a business driven by advertisers.

In the years since, you know the story: Facebook went public and more and more third-party apps joined the sandbox, as did businesses and ads. Control of privacy and access to controls was slowly taken or hidden from users bit by bit. And now, it’s revealed that, oh, yeah. That part where they said they would never sell your information to others? Well, they sort of lied.

Really, Zuck?

I understand that Facebook can change its terms of use and its privacy policy at will. I get that, I really do. But how Facebook communicated these changes and how some changes can’t be opted out of, is both poor customer service and sorry public relations.

I also understand the argument that the Internet has changed what privacy is on so many other levels and that we choose to share what we’re sharing on Facebook. I also understand and agree that Open Graph is awesome for users, media outlets, writers and brands. I know that it’s a glimpse into the future of the Web, one that is about sharing information and connecting data that has never before in history been connected.

But it’s also about transparency. And trust.

What I don’t understand is how an entity with such fierce brand loyalty and engagement can really think that the business practice of ‘Don’t ask permission, beg for forgiveness’ will go over well.

What I don’t understand is how Facebook can do this to users who signed up for something else, who signed up for the old Facebook. The one where we all feel comfortable sharing and engaging. The one where I get to be Kevin Bacon.