As the scope of sharing personal information expands from a few friends to many sundry individuals grouped together under the Facebook label of “friends,” disclosure becomes the norm and privacy becomes a quaint anachronism.
Facebook’s younger members — high school or college students, and recent graduates who came of age as Facebook got its start on campuses — appear comfortable with sharing just about anything. It’s the older members — those who could join only after it opened membership in 2006 to workplace networks, then to anyone — who are adjusting to a new value system that prizes self-expression over reticence.
Stross simply has this one wrong. Instead of misguided intuition, let’s look at the numbers. In the Summer/Fall of 2008, Jacob Kramer-Duffield and I ran a survey of undergraduate Facebook users. We employed a list-based simple random sample, with 494 respondents. When asked the question Have you changed the default Facebook privacy settings to give yourself enhanced privacy in Facebook?, 72.47% responded “Yes.” To the question Based on your Facebook privacy settings choices, who do you allow to see your Facebook profile?, 50% answered “Only my Facebook friends.” (1)
Stross would also benefit from looking at Lampe et al., 2008, a longitudinal analysis of Facebook use by a cohort of undergraduate students at Michigan State University. The authors note “In 2006, 64% of users had the default settings for privacy. In 2007, this number dropped to 45% of users who had the default settings, and by users maintained the default privacy settings.” (p. 726) Williams (2008), employing a SRS at Texas Tech, found that “In regard to public access to their Facebook profile, (50.6%) allowed only their friends to access their page, while (71.0%) stated that the primary target of their communication were friends.” (p. 52) Williams writes (in her very interesting thesis) “Perhaps this is an indication that Facebook users, in particular at this institution, have greater concerns for invasions of privacy or a greater need to protect their disclosures from the general Facebook audience.”
I could go on. Strauss, who theoretically has access to a research library, could have skimmed Lewis et al., 2008, Tufekci, 2008 or any of the recent studies put out by the Pew Internet and American Life Project for context. Since he didn’t, he actually gets the issue backward. I’ve written about this before, but the basic idea is this: Young people didn’t simply decide to give up privacy. Rather, the studies show that social network sites, in their early iterations, created a very meaningful sense of close community. Young people disclosed not because attitudes about privacy instantly and simultaneously changed, but because they felt very comfortable with their audience. Zimmer continues:
Stross likely doesn’t realize it, but he’s right that sites like Facebook have “[dissolved] the line that separates the private from the public.” In few realms of our lives can we truly identify a strict dichotomy between public and private information. Instead, everything is contextual. And, yes, that’s what makes thinking about privacy difficult, but that doesn’t mean we throw in the towel. Instead, we accept the challenge and work to create policies and build technologies for the sharing of information that properly reflect a contextual notion of privacy, rather than a binary one.
The conclusion that Stross draws – that adults are now going to massively change their disclosure behavior because of young people – is as flawed as his “privacy as anachronism” point. The real story is that adults are grappling with and establishing norms of privacy in a manner very similar to young people. This is my summer research topic, so watch this space for more along these lines. A final point – the 20% statistic. First, Facebook defaults have changed over the years, so a default now may have been a modification in the past. Second, Facebook’s audience is increasingly international, so we must remember that norms will vary significantly across nations and cultures. Third, privacy is not in Facebook’s business interests. Less privacy = more content, so it may not be in Facebook’s interest to craft a privacy statistic that reflects current norms.
(1) This survey was initially presented at the 2008 ASIST Annual Meeting. We are currently writing it up for publication.
Lampe, C., Ellison, N. B., and Steinfield, C. (2008). Changes in use and perception of facebook. In CSCW ’08: Proceedings of the ACM 2008 conference on Computer supported cooperative work, New York, NY, USA, 2008 (pp. 721-730). ACM.
Williams, I. M. (2008). The Effects of Anticipated Future Interaction and Self Disclosure on Facebook. Masters thesis, Texas Tech University.
Lewis, K., Kaufman, J., and Christakis, N. (2008). The Taste for Privacy: An Analysis of College Student Privacy Settings in an Online Social Network. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 14(1), 79-100.
Tufekci, Z. (2008). Can You See Me Now? Audience and Disclosure Regulation in Online Social Network Sites. Bulletin of Science Technology and Society, 28(1), 20-36. http://bst.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/28/1/20