THE SOCIAL NETWORK
How Facebook Is Redefining Privacy
Thursday, May. 20, 2010
How Facebook Is Redefining Privacy
By Dan Fletcher
Sometime in the next few weeks, Facebook will officially log its 500 millionth
active citizen. If the website were granted terra firma, it would be the world's
third largest country by population, two-thirds bigger than the U.S. More than 1
in 4 people who browse the Internet not only have a Facebook account but have
returned to the site within the past 30 days.
Just six years after Harvard undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg helped found Facebook
in his dorm room as a way for Ivy League students to keep tabs on one another,
the company has joined the ranks of the Web's great superpowers. Microsoft made
computers easy for everyone to use. Google helps us search out data. YouTube
keeps us entertained. But Facebook has a huge advantage over those other sites:
the emotional investment of its users. Facebook makes us smile, shudder, squeeze
into photographs so we can see ourselves online later, fret when no one responds
to our witty remarks, snicker over who got fat after high school, pause during
weddings to update our relationship status to Married or codify a breakup by
setting our status back to Single. (I'm glad we can still be friends, Elise.)
Getting to the point where so many of us are comfortable living so much of our
life on Facebook represents a tremendous cultural shift, particularly since 28%
of the site's users are older than 34, Facebook's fastest-growing demographic.
Facebook has changed our social DNA, making us more accustomed to openness. But
the site is premised on a contradiction: Facebook is rich in intimate
opportunities — you can celebrate your niece's first steps there and mourn the
death of a close friend — but the company is making money because you are, on
some level, broadcasting those moments online. The feelings you experience on
Facebook are heartfelt; the data you're providing feeds a bottom line.
The willingness of Facebook's users to share and overshare — from descriptions
of our bouts of food poisoning (gross) to our uncensored feelings about our
bosses (not advisable) — is critical to its success. Thus far, the company's
m.o. has been to press users to share more, then let up if too many of them
complain. Because of this, Facebook keeps finding itself in the crosshairs of
intense debates about privacy. It happened in 2007, when the default settings in
an initiative called Facebook Beacon sent all your Facebook friends updates
about purchases you made on certain third-party sites. Beacon caused an uproar
among users — who were automatically enrolled — and occasioned a public apology
And it is happening again. To quell the latest concerns of users — and of
elected officials in the U.S. and abroad — Facebook is getting ready to unveil
enhanced privacy controls. The changes are coming on the heels of a complaint
filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on May 5 by the Electronic Privacy
Information Center, which takes issue with Facebook's frequent policy changes
and tendency to design privacy controls that are, if not deceptive, less than
intuitive. (Even a company spokesman got tripped up trying to explain to me why
my co-worker has a shorter privacy-controls menu than I do.) The 38-page
complaint asks the FTC to compel Facebook to clarify the privacy settings
attached to each piece of information we post as well as what happens to that
data after we share it.
our personal preferences has never been greater. In April, it launched a major
initiative called Open Graph, which lets Facebook users weigh in on what they
like on the Web, from a story on TIME.com to a pair of jeans from Levi's. The
logic is that if my friends recommend something, I'll be more inclined to like
it too. And because Facebook has so many users — and because so many companies
want to attract those users' eyeballs — Facebook is well positioned to display
its members' preferences on any website, anywhere. Less than a month after Open
Graph's rollout, more than 100,000 sites had integrated the technology.
"The mission of the company is to make the world more open and connected,"
Zuckerberg told me in early May. To him, expanding Facebook's function from
enabling us to interact with people we like on the site to interacting with
stuff our friends like on other sites is "a natural extension" of what the
company has been doing.
In his keynote announcing Open Graph, Zuckerberg said, "We're building a Web
where the default is social." But default settings are part of the reason
Facebook is in the hot seat now. In the past, when Facebook changed its privacy
controls, it tended to automatically set users' preferences to maximum exposure
and then put the onus on us to go in and dial them back. In December, the
company set the defaults for a lot of user information so that everyone — even
non-Facebook members — could see such details as status updates and lists of
friends and interests. Many of us scrambled for cover, restricting who gets to
see what on our profile pages. But it's still nearly impossible to tease out how
our data might be used in other places, such as Facebook applications or
elsewhere on the Web.
There's something unsettling about granting the world a front-row seat to all of
our interests. But Zuckerberg is betting that it's not unsettling enough to
enough people that we'll stop sharing all the big and small moments of our lives
with the site. On the contrary, he's betting that there's almost no limit to
what people will share and to how his company can benefit from it.
Since the site expanded membership to high schoolers in 2005 and to anyone over
the age of 13 in 2006, Facebook has become a kind of virtual pacemaker, setting
the rhythms of our online lives, letting us ramp up both the silly socializing
and the serious career networking. Zuckerberg's next goal is even more
ambitious: to make Facebook a kind of second nervous system that's rapid-firing
more of our thoughts and feelings over the Web. Or, to change the metaphor,
Facebook wants to be not just a destination but the vehicle too.
"I'm CEO ... Bitch"
Facebook's world headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., looks like an afterthought,
a drab office building at the end of a sleepy stretch of California Avenue.
Lacking the scale of Microsoft's sprawling campus or the gleaming grandeur of
Google HQ, Facebook's home base is unpretentious and underwhelming. The sign in
front (colored red, not the company's trademark cobalt blue) features a large,
boldface address with a tiny Facebook logo nestled above.
Inside the building, Facebook crams in hundreds of employees, who work in big,
open-air bullpens. Without cubicles or walls, there isn't much privacy, so each
desk seems like, well, a Facebook profile — small, visible-to-all spaces
decorated with photos and personal sundries. Zuckerberg spent the past year in a
dimly lit bullpen on the ground floor. But perhaps in a concession to the fact
that the CEO needs some privacy, the 26-year-old billionaire recently moved
upstairs to a small office, albeit one with a glass wall so everyone can see
what he's doing in there.
Steve Jobs has his signature black turtlenecks; Zuckerberg usually sports a
hoodie. In Facebook's early years, he was the cocky coder kid with business
cards that read, "I'm CEO ... Bitch." (Zuckerberg has said publicly they were a
joke from a friend.) And elem
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