My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Facebook’s “Privacy Trainwreck”: Exposure, Invasion, and Drama

Last night, i asked will Facebook learn from its mistake? In the first paragraph, i alluded to a “privacy trainwreck” and then went on to briefly highlight the political actions that were taking place. I never returned to why i labeled it that way and in my coarseness, i failed to properly convey what i meant by this.

When i sat down to explain the significance of the “privacy trainwreck,” a full-length essay came out. Rather than make you read this essay in blog form (or via your RSS reader), i partitioned it off to a printable webpage.

Facebook’s “Privacy Trainwreck”: Exposure, Invasion, and Drama

The key points that i make in this essay are:

  • Privacy is an experience that people have, not a state of data.

  • The ickyness that people feel when they panic about privacy comes from the experience of exposure or invasion.
  • We’ve experienced the exposure hiccup before with Cobot. When are we going to learn?
  • Invasion changes social reality and there is a cognitive cap to being able to handle it.
  • Does invasion potentially result in a weakening of meaningful social ties?
  • Facebook lost its innocence this week.

Please enjoy this essay and forward it on to both technology folks and Facebook participants. I would like to hear feedback!

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50 comments to Facebook’s “Privacy Trainwreck”: Exposure, Invasion, and Drama

  • Ken

    Fascinating, Danah. Thanks.

    I taught a research methods course this summer, where I had each of the students research the same topic – privacy and surveillance. While we turned up all manner of shock and awe by both public and private actors, I must admit we (I) never got anywhere near the depth of understanding you have. If/when I teach that course again, I’m including your essay in the required readings.

    Given the intensely subjective nature of your understanding of privacy, what sort of policies would you propose as regards to state surveillance, or the (far more) disturbing private-sector databases that have been compiled by marketing and credit services companies? It seems there’s a qualitative difference between the “privacy as intimacy” you lay out here, and “privacy as security” or “privacy as liberty” that I think many of us reflexively hold to.

    There’s clearly a difference between privacy and anonymity, but as you point out, most of us (Americans, at least) have a latent expectation of (or at least preference for) the latter.

    Thoughts?

  • ry

    excellent essay d. you have some great points and it just made me think about how some organizations really fail to grasp the privacy concerns that accompany their products/services. why release a feature that will cause uproar amongst a large number of your users? amongst many, i see two main reasons. 1) they don’t understand their users and are operating ‘blind’ 2) facebook suddenly made prime time media a lot more so than it has in recent times. sadly, this may actually be good for them.

    then again, there are many people who have the boolean viewpoint to privacy that you discussed. privacy = 1 – (availability * accessibility), where availability is a boolean as to whether the raw data is out there and accessibility is a 0-1 factor of how easy it is to get to that raw data and draw conclusions from it. with the web, the accssibility factor is constantly changing. analogy — if i owned a house on a small quarter-acre lot surrounded by thousands of acres of unoccupied forest and i placed a big sign on the front of the house revealing some private information. the availability factor is a 1 because i’m exposing this data to the outside world (of course, one could argue that if the data is outside of your head, written or recorded in any way that the availability factor is a 1). the perceived accessibility factor is near zero, because nobody is around to see my private thoughts on the sign. the next day, i return home from work to find all the trees chopped down and hundreds of families walking around looking to buy the lots around my house. the accessibility factor of the information posted on the sign in my front lawn has suddenly changed, and privacy has dwindled.

    in this analogy, if i was connected with the community- i probably would have known that building permits were issued or the area re-zoned for resdential use, etc– all ‘freely’ available information (with a varying accessibility level depending on the local government). however, in the Internet age, thse things occur a lot faster, and the warning no longer exists as the advance notice is not provided as its ‘proprietary knowledge’ as opposed to something covered under foia or the like in the analogy.

    unfortunately, many of us often resort to changing the availability factor of our thoughts to 0, knowing that the accessibility factor is unpredictable nowadays.

    -ry

  • crzwdjk

    Simple analogy for the facebook feed feature: sure, if you go out in public, anyone can see what you are doing. But you wouldn’t want someone walking behind you loudly announcing all your actions to the rest of world now would you?

  • I’m still wondering why anyone with a Facebook thought they still had any privacy left to lose anyway.

  • I can hardly keep up with the changes in my own life. It seems exhausting to try to keep up with every single new hobby, friend, breakup and laundry cycle of everybody in my network. However, I do know some friends who obsessively check the latest changes on their ex boyfriend/girlfriend’s pages. Seems like facebook just makes it easier for these type of people, less clicks.

  • Thanks a lot for taking the time to write this article. It’s the first time I’ve heard a legitimate argument against the news feed.

    It seems to me that this could all be resolved if they slowly introduced the features, until they got to a point where we are now. Sure, in the end, people would be exposed more, but they wouldn’t be surprised so suddenly.

    On the other hand, I can understand that this transparency would result in a very different social network in the end. People would be dubious about joining silly (or for other reasons, “private”) groups.

    Anyway, you’ve given me a lot more to consider about it all. Thanks.

  • I just wanted to say thanks for writing a brilliant essay.

  • Thoughtful essay. I was at the blogHer session you moderated and thought it was one of the best I attended.

    I like the analogy to sound levels and privacy very much. Certainly coincides with my ability to have an intimate conversation with someone in the midst of a public event filled with content I wouldn’t necessarily shout out loud. As Ken points out there is a distinction between privacy and secrecy.

    I want to comment on the matter of the suicide of the woman you discussed. Suicide is complex and involves, surprisingly, a great number of people. It sounds like you became one of the people involved with that young woman. Being involved does not mean being responsible. The decision to end one’s life can be an act of depressed agony or a last action of a conscious, capable being. I was reminded of this last case watching a documentary on 9/11 last night with respect to the people who decided to jump from the towers and the understanding evidenced in the firefighters at the bottom.

    Whatever the situation faced by the young woman you were in contact with her decisions were her decisions. It is unlikely that your actions or inactions amounted to the “cause” for her. I know that doesn’t ease the pain you feel. But that pain is yours and the young woman’s decisions were hers. You could no more take on her pain than make her decisions for her.

    My own experience with suicde began when my mother killed herself some 30 years ago. I know that each suicide is unique just as each life is unique. I hope the experience of that young woman doesn’t cause you to stop the excellent endeavours you are involved in.

  • Hi Danah, The point I wanted to make is that in all the coverage of this, the focus has been on the fact that friends can see what their friends post. However, it really goes much broader than that. I can not only see what my friends post, but I can visit random Facebook profiles in my networks and see the feeds on the pages of complete strangers who simply happen to be in my college or city network. That is where it gets incredibly invading and, as you put it, icky.

    So when you post something to Facebook, not only can your friends see it, but many, many more people that you don’t even know.

  • I’m so happy when people actually contextualize social networks historically.

    MOOs taught us a lot of lessons that present generations of internet inhabitants have no collective memory of.

    r

  • Great summation of the Facebook shenanigans, Danah. An analogy springs to mind.. the Intelligence community has a notion of ‘classification by aggregation.’ This is when intelligence that was previously DE-classified, when compiled into an easily-accessible single source, may become classified information. Same principle – it’s not just the easy access that makes these assets newly re-dangerous. It’s the ability to spot patterns of behavior or infer causality — to derive deeper and in some cases altogether original insight into the subject. This is a fascinating cautionary tale that’s still unfolding…

  • You’re right. Privacy and security can’t be encapsulated in a single bit. And some of us do get it. Mosuki has built a system that can distinguish between friends and acquaintances and which provides feeds of activity in your social network, while still respecting a user’s privacy and not broadcasting actions that should not be broadcast.

    Technology is not just about providing better features, it’s also about providing a safe and comfortable experience for the user. Airbags don’t make cars drive better, but they are an advancement in car technology. The future of social networks is to enable information to be shared between users without giving up their right to privacy and ultimately safety.

    http://blog.mosuki.com/10/caveat-user-is-a-cop-out

  • Check out the Facebook homepage. I’m pretty sure Zuckerberg is reading your blog Danah.

    “From reading a lot of your messages, it seems like some of you want more separation. Do you want to be completely invisible to people who aren’t in a college or high school? Do you want to make sure they can’t message or poke you? We like hearing from you.”

    They definitely seem like they’re trying to learn from their mistakes and it looks like they’re experimenting with the privacy/community dichotomy through trial and error (not quite the scientific method). This will be an interesting one to watch.

    P.S. Isn’t this another huge mistake, right here: “we’re not putting up more banner ads, we’re not charging anyone, we’re not letting people put random HTML in their profiles, and we’re not selling your information”? How can you so publicly close yourself off to all of these things that (with the exception of the last one) seem like serious potential options for a company still in its infancy? It seems like they’re painting themselves right into another corner, unless they know something about monetization that the rest of us are missing.

  • op

    ["We've experienced the exposure hiccup before with Cobot. When are we going to learn?"]

    could you elaborate a little? i know what the portmanteau is(collaborative robot), but are you speaking of a particular example? just curious = )

  • In the full article, there’s a link to the Cobot research project. I’ve also written about Cobot before when talking about data that matters. Hopefully these links help!

  • deb

    Wonderful article. Thanks for the perspective.

  • Hi Dana,

    Very interesting piece. I’ve linked a 30 min movie presentation on some science behind how one can datamine private and public data together. Not sure if it’s 100% related to your thesis, but it should be of interest.

    Basically, it shows how you can link together (private) movie recommendations to forum entries you’ve made about movies. A little obscure, but a bit frightening.

    Winton

  • Steve Crocker

    Hi Danah,

    Well, I am an older adult who has a strong interest in young people (not sexually – I have to say that since that seems to be the first thing a lot of people think) so I suppose I am one of those that people feel they have to protect their privacy against. I will do things like randomly check out blogs, in the hope of finding out something interesting or important in somebody else’s life (I should perhaps mention that I am a lifelong sufferer from Aspergers syndrome, and have extreme difficulty making real life friends in the “normal” manner). I once went looking for inspiration for a poem by blog-hopping until I found a suitable piece of drama, in the form of a twenty-something goth chick from Cleveland and her abusive and mental boyfriend who she kept taking back. The result was something called “Roller Coaster/Merry Go Round” which some people even think was good.

    But none of that was what I actually wanted to comment about. I was struck by your description, not only of the person who suicided, but by how you found yourself as a help resource for so many despairing young women.

    My perspective comes from having grown up in a time and place where peer suicide counseling was not a necessary or even common part of teen life. And, gradually, I’ve seen that change. Take a few other markers, related indirectly, but I think actually to the teen suicide question.

    Mid seventies – my first encounter with a teen with ulcers – When I was growing up ulcers were a disease of middle age. (And in case you accept the viewpoint that ulcers are bacterial and thus not stress related, I’ll just point out that given the well-known effects of stress on the immune system, it makes much better sense to say that ulcers are bacterial – and therefore stress-related.)

    Early nineties – sitting with a group of young folks on the young end of their twenties. The topic – how almost all the kids they used to hang with were now dead.

    Date escapes memory – the Columbine shootings – The thing that always shocked me about this was that the parents had killers growing up under their own roof, and apparently had no clue. More shocking – in the aftermath, whenever I would talk to a younger person and make that criticism of Eric and Dylan’s parents, I would always get disagreement. Apparently few kids growing up today think it’s normal or expected to be known by their parents. Again, this is a generational difference. I grew up in a time and place where it was normal and expected for one parent to devote themselves to child-rearing to the rather than to work. And, as a conquence, to become close to your kid. As it happened, my own mom did work – she was a schoolteacher – but she quit for 15 years to raise me and my sister, and then returned to teaching.

    A poem I wrote after one of these conversations contains the line “Eighteen years a stranger, living in a stranger’s house. Is this the life that we call normal now?”

    And just a couple years ago – Good Charlotte releases the anti-suicide song and video “hold on (when you feel like letting go)” – a profoundly decent and human gesture that should, however, never have become necessary.

    What have we come to when the people who, more than any others, should have been expected to have your back are all too often the ones you have to watch your back against. And so, we have “peer suicide counseling” – and don’t mistake my meaning – I don’t mean some hotline program by such a name set up by instutional authority – though I’m sure such must exist – I mean the raw stuff. Your friend calls, or comes over, or IM’s you, or corners you at a party, or whatever – and the subject is “I don’t want to be here anymore”. And those of our young people who rise to that challenge are true heroes – and no statistics count the lives they save. No plaque memorializes them at ground zero.

    They are just doing what a good person has to do.

    But I think my point is that children shouldn’t have to become heroes. Call me a hopeless romantic, living in the past, out of touch with the world of today, but I think the proper role of adults it to have the younger generation’s back. And I don’t think we should consider what is going on instead acceptable.

    Thanks for listening,
    -Steve

  • Thanks for the essay! I found it as I was browsing around, trying to decide whether I should join Facebook or not due to privacy considerations.

    I like the bit analogy, but think that we need to acknowledge that aggregation over time creates new information. If I go and check the membership of a group, I can see that you’re either part of it or not a member. But if I get a feed of your actions, I can see that you joined or left it and when. Without the feed, if you leave the “Gay and Closeted” group, and I go to that group and look at the member directory, there’s no trace of your membership. But with the feed, not only is the accessibility of the information different, but it’s availability is different as well, as I now have proof of your membership, even though you’ve already left the group.

  • Rukia13

    Well done! Thank you for sharing this.

    I have recently left Facebook over privacy concerns. My maxxed out privacy settings weren’t working. Plus I quickly went from reluctant account holder to addicted to the site feeds (reading them and coming up with my own very quickly. I too said described the entire Facebook experience as “icky”.

    I will check out your latest work in progress.

    Best wishes on your Ph.D. program.

  • I’d like to share my own Facebook privacy story. I have my preferences all set so that no-one but my friends can see my profile, write on my wall, etc. Nevertheless a “woman” called Rebecca DeHavilland (who I suspect is non-existent judging from her messages and details) was able to worm her way into my account, write on my wall, etc. without my confirming her as a friend.

    In fact, I never ever received a friends request: but on the same day received TWO e-mails that this person had written on my wall (which she/it had done just once) and 12 e-mails saying she’d edited details about how we know each other. There were other differences in how she/it was displayed on my account. For instance, every other message at the bottom had:

    Wall-to-Wall – Write on Friend’s Wall – Message – Delete

    For this “person” it just said “Delete” (despite the fact that we were already supposed to be friends, according to you). Also, when I tried to search for this person, she didn’t come up.

    Facebook, of course, denies everything. I haven’t killed my account yet, but am keeping a close eye out

  • Simple analogy for the facebook feed feature: sure, if you go out in public, anyone can see what you are doing. But you wouldn’t want someone walking behind you loudly announcing all your actions to the rest of world now would you?

  • I have recently left Facebook over privacy concerns. My maxxed out privacy settings weren’t working. Plus I quickly went from reluctant account holder to addicted to the site feeds (reading them and coming up with my own very quickly. I too said described the entire Facebook experience as “icky”.

  • Did Facebook lose it’s innocence? Or, was it just a wolf in disguise? I’m going for the latter. The designers intended – right from the beginning – to do this sort of thing. That was the intention. Most of us didn’t read the smallprint when we signed up, but I had one friend who did. It plainly says there that they reserve the FULL RIGHT to sell your information to whoever they choose. Perhaps if we all read through those terms and conditions in the beginning (and, who does? but anyway) we wouldn’t have this problem. True, they were pretty deceptive about things, but that’s another whole story!

  • adsl

    I have recently left Facebook over privacy concerns. My maxxed out privacy settings weren’t working. Plus I quickly went from reluctant account holder to addicted to the site feeds (reading them and coming up with my own very quickly. I too said described the entire Facebook experience as “icky”.

  • I doubt anyone’s ever gonna read this but gonna write it anyhow. (if someone *does* read it, though, please be-Friend me and stick it in your news feed so I know ;). yes to pretty much everything above. but I interpret the reaction to Facebook’s news feeds as the the moment between the peak of unrealistic expectation and the trough of disillusionment in Gartner’s hype cycle (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hype_cycle). once we hit the slope of enlightenment, it won’t be news feeds = bad or good, but what the affordances of news feeds are for purposes of social networking. and I definitely see some interesting possibilities: types of news feeds for types of relationships. might there be certain ‘types’ of Facebook activities I’d like to automatically communicate to certain ‘types’ of Friends? curious.

  • Facebook has always served us by giving us access and exposure to great clients. When I forwarded the essay(s) to some Facebook contacts, no one dared to comment; instead, everyone continued with their own business. Until today, Facebook and our contacts there aren’t that disturbed or bothered with these essays.

  • Sohbet

    Simple analogy for the facebook feed feature: sure, if you go out in public, anyone can see what you are doing. But you wouldn’t want someone walking behind you loudly announcing all your actions to the rest of world now would you?

  • Thanks for the really usefully and Interesting Informations about the “Facebook”. Really a great stuff.
    Greetings from Germany,

    Webdesign

  • Thanks for the really usefully and Interesting Informations about the “Facebook”. Really a great stuff.
    Greetings from Germany,

  • I like very much the writings and pictures and explanations in your adress so I look forward to see your next writings. I congratulate you.

  • I like very much the writings and pictures and explanations in your adress so I look forward to see your next writings. I congratulate you.

  • Thanks for the really usefully and Interesting Informations about the “Facebook”. Really a great stuff.
    Greetings from Germany,

  • Lisa

    facebookprivacy.petitionhost.com/

    As a user of Facebook, there is no way to pre approve photo comments, wall comments, and tagged photos. To make matters worse, no matter what we do in our security settings… facebook will in fact send newsfeeds to all of your friends notifying them of the above before we even have a chance to see it ourselves. FYI facebook, just because someone clicks that they have permission or the right to distribute the picture they are about to upload.. doesn’t mean they do. And once it’s tagged, the notifications are sent to all your friends and the damage is done. Why is it that so many of your users have complained about this and nothing is being done about it? This does have lawsuit written all over it. But we assume there is some fine print somewhere in one of their pages that announces facebook is not liable. So hey, what do they care if people’s lives are being ruined by it? Sign this petition asking Facebook to respect our wishes and give us approval of these things before they send them out in Newsfeeds. We should be able to control what information is being broadcasted to all the people on our pages. NO ONE has the right to post pictures of you and invite everyone on your page to come and look at it without your permission or approval first. It is a major violation of your privacy. Even if Facebook doesn’t seem to view it as such.

  • If you’re a facebook user, you are the product. You are what facebook is selling. The advertisers are facebook’s customers. Is it any wonder facebook treats its users with contempt?

    http://www.facebookunmasked.com

  • Tim

    Whine whine whine. Why don’t you just do what I did and delete your account?

  • I like the bit analogy, but think that we need to acknowledge that aggregation over time creates new information. If I go and check the membership of a group, I can see that you’re either part of it or not a member. But if I get a feed of your actions, I can see that you joined or left it and when. Without the feed, if you leave the “Gay and Closeted” group, and I go to that group and look at the member directory, there’s no trace of your membership. But with the feed, not only is the accessibility of the information different, but it’s availability is different as well, as I now have proof of your membership, even though you’ve already left the group.

  • Simple analogy for the facebook feed feature: sure, if you go out in public, anyone can see what you are doing. But you wouldn’t want someone walking behind you loudly announcing all your actions to the rest of world now would you?

  • I like very much the writings and pictures and explanations in your adress so I look forward to see your next writings. I congratulate you.

  • rigas

    Two years ago, French TV CEO Patrick Le lay (TF1) said that his business was to prepare the brain of the TV viewers and sell TV ads.

    ” Il faut que le cerveau du téléspectateur soit disponible. Nos émissions ont pour vocation (…) de le divertir, de le détendre pour le préparer entre deux messages. ”

    I think companies like Facebook and Gmail from the moment they use the content posted by their clients consider it as available material to be used by them, in the same way Le Lay thinks he owns the brains of the TV viewers.

    To follow-up on with the concepts of your bright analysis, Le Lay has perfectly stated that the process is an invasion of privacy, in the very same way you mention it in your essay and Mr. Le Lay believes his job is to make the invasion a little more agreable, painless. facebook and the like by giving us a helping hand in arranging some far fetched material we would have never thought to gather withut their help -precisely-, does the same: they make it more agreable to us and less painful to accept the use of our social knowldedge for their profits.

    Thanks to boingboing and Dan Gillmore to point to your work.

  • Simple analogy for the facebook feed feature: sure, if you go out in public, anyone can see what you are doing. But you wouldn’t want someone walking behind you loudly announcing all your actions to the rest of world now would you?…

  • I like very much the writings and pictures and explanations in your adress so I look forward to see your next writings. I congratulate you…

  • I don’t trust Facebook, they can put their TOS as they want.

  • I have recently left Facebook over privacy concerns. My maxxed out privacy settings weren’t working. Plus I quickly went from reluctant account holder to addicted to the site feeds (reading them and coming up with my own very quickly. I too said described the entire Facebook experience as “icky”.Thanks

  • Sensitivities to trust issues seem to be waning in the general public (people are flocking to sign up in networks, especially Facebook, and share more granular details of their lives, what they eat, which products they love and so on). Sure, there will always be strong advocates for more privacy, but pinning down the web would be as difficult as well, pinning down a web.

  • have the boolean viewpoint to privacy that you discussed. privacy = 1 – (availability * accessibility), where availability is a boolean as to whether the raw data is out there and accessibility is a 0-1 factor of how easy it is to get to that raw data and draw conclusions from it. with the web, the accssibility factor is constantly changing. analogy — if i owned a house on a small quarter-acre lot surrounded by thousands of acres of unoccupied forest and i placed a big sign on the front of the house revealing some private information. the availability factor is a 1 because i’m exposing this data to the outside world (of course, one could argue that if the data is outside of your head, written or recorded

  • I have recently left Facebook over privacy concerns. I had no idea about it but when I noticed its privacy issue I left using facebook. Facebook has always served us by giving us access and exposure to great clients.

    Thanks for the really usefully and Interesting Informations about the “Facebook”. Really a great stuff.

    Archie

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