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The Law of Unintended Facebook Consequences

Facebook’s philosophy could one day harm even the cautious. You might have skipped Saturday’s Wall Street Journal. Or if you read the paper, you might have passed up an article entitled When Deepest of Secrets Get Outed on Facebook. It was purportedly about young people who joined a gay chorus that had an open Facebook group – and as a result, their parents learned they were gay. But this article reflects a much larger issue -- Facebook's default strategy is sharing information -- with companies and through groups that users believe to be private – and the CEO believes that this default strategy is acceptable and appropriate. No need to restate it when Mark Zuckerberg says it so well. In an interview about the rise of Facebook called The Facebook Effect he observes: "The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly." But did we understand this and really, do we all get the picture?

Facebook shares what your connections share, even if you don’t. So perhaps you untagged yourself from a photo raising a beer glass in a bar, or you tried not to be photographed by reporters while standing at a political rally. But, oops, that group has a Facebook page or is a Facebook Group – someone you know through Facebook has your name and voilà, they shared it without your permission. Or maybe as an NFL referee discovered, a picture is snapped wearing a jacket of a team playing in a game he was about to officiate. Too bad, the referee lost that gig and likely all future NFL referee jobs.

Is this a privacy setting, a user beware, or is it beyond the user's control? Unfortunately, this Facebook 'feature' is not a privacy setting or a train-the-user problem anymore, although until recently, perhaps we might have believed it was, as demonstrated by Pew Research’s survey in 2011, 50% of social network users 'have difficulty managing privacy controls.' And in a 2012 report on social networking privacy, Pew also reported that 49% of the 65+ have their settings set to Public or Partially Private. But ultimately as the WSJ article verified, it really doesn’t matter what you do on your own. If you have a Facebook profile and someone you know has a profile, you can be added to a group without your permission – notifying your so-called Facebook friends that you have joined. Further, if the group’s creator adds you to it and sets it as an open group, then there it is – it’s open. Next, you can’t take down photos posted by others. And finally, watch what products or services you 'Like' on Facebook. After much flap, whew, in that regard, we're fortunate -- soon Facebook will be reminding us that our photo can be used in ads for that product.

For the occasional or novice user, checking regularly where they've landed now matters.  So when we used to say at Forrester in 1998 that the Internet changes everything, we did not know what we did not yet know. We thought that the Internet would be used for commerce (true) and would replace paper purchasing (true). But we did not know about the pervasiveness of social networks like Facebook that would act like a leaky faucet, dripping information out into an ocean of connections, with no way to turn it off. The reality is that Facebook’s core philosophy, which more than 1 billion people have accepted when they sign up, is both frightening and offensive. Information is shared unless you hide it – and that you have only one image/identity which can be shared without permission. And while plenty is written about teenagers and Facebook, maybe we should worry about what may be inadvertently happening to privacy, personal safety (see Consumer Reports) and the security of a growing population of older adults online, both willingly and unwittingly sharing more than they bargained for through a network like Facebook.

Addendum: Facebook releases privacy guide for new users. Now that the 1 billion have already signed up, the next billion new users will be given instructions on Facebook's default settings, sharing permissions, ads, photo tags.  According to the Washington Post, this in response to efforts of the Irish Data Protection Commissioner's Office.  Of course. Common sense and traditional software implementation standards alone would not have indicated a need for user instruction on something so basic as how to avoid having their privacy and rights compromised by the above defaults. 


Interesting article that references the ability (added in 2011) to download your own data from Facebook. (Go to Account Settings and Download a copy of your Facebook data (Start My Archive).)


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