You may have seen this story concerning Facebook, privacy, and data mining, which was widely reported on Monday. Here’s the Guardian:
Facebook users are unwittingly revealing intimate secrets – including their sexual orientation, drug use and political beliefs – using only public “like” updates, according to a study of online privacy.
The research into 58,000 Facebook users in the US found that sensitive personal characteristics about people can be accurately inferred from information in the public domain.
Researchers were able to accurately infer a Facebook user’s race, IQ, sexuality, substance use, personality or political views using only a record of the subjects and items they had “liked” on Facebook – even if users had chosen not to reveal that information.
The study will reopen the debate about privacy in the digital age and raise fresh concerns about what information people share online.
Then, yesterday, Helen Lewis wrote a Comment is Free piece about the story. She suggests first of all that our concept of privacy is a fairly recent phenomenon and that some of the “secrets” people were “giving away” are trivial. She goes on to argue that modern teenagers already conceive of privacy in different terms than do adults.
But surely, you might say, think of the children! Well, the truth is that our wired teenagers clearly don’t see privacy in the way that we do, and are even happier than we are to overshare online. Their generation will have to live with the consequences of posting those drunken party pictures where a future employer might see them.
Then again, give it another generation and their employers might have drunken party pictures on the internet too. Just as we might feel righteous indignation if family members burst into our bedroom without asking, so our ideas of privacy might look baffling to the humans of the future.
Finally, here’s a piece from Today’s New Statesman, in which Alex Hearn argues that people have already changed the way they use Facebook and are growing ever-more savvy about what they give away:
Facebook is designed to be used in a way that corresponds with the actual use patterns of fewer and fewer of its members. Even “active users”—its new preferred metric, since the total number of registered users is now limited by the population of the earth—may not be active the way it likes us to be.
The perfect Facebook user checks in whenever they go somewhere; they like the pages of all their favourite bands, movies, TV shows, and even their dentist; they tell Facebook where they work and went to school; they visit other sites through apps on Facebook; and they never, ever change their privacy settings from the default.
Does that describe you? Does that describe anyone?
Hearn goes on to suggest that the thing we should worry about more is what we accidentally share, as opposed to what we volunteer. This all goes back the end-user and how much they know. Are most Facebook users aware that they are the product that Facebook sells? Are we aware of being Google’s product? I’d say a growing proportion of people are. One of the interesting things about Twitter is that it has never insisted on your real name. Some people use theirs, others don’t. It’s especially evident that very few teenagers use their real names on Twitter, which makes it much more attractive.
As you’ll know (or soon will) from my lessons, I’m of the opinion that social networks rise and fall around chat. As any teacher knows, teenagers are all about the chat. From MSN to MySpace, from Facebook to Twitter, people go where their friends are, so they can chat without using up their monthly text message allowance. Alex Hearn points out that Facebook is just a glorified message service. If people stop using it for that, it’s dead.