Facebook–Where Everyone Knows Your Name May 6, 2010Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
Tags: Carlos Castaneda, Deborah Tannen, facebook, friendship, privacy
An Indiana woman’s home was burglarized recently, while she was at a concert. The culprits turned out to be Facebook “friends”; she had announced, online, that she’d be at the concert. With friends like that, we surely don’t need any enemies, as the old saying goes. Facebook, along with MySpace and Twitter, is one of the institutions in which a generation may see itself mirrored and reach self-comprehension, and it is a fascinating phenomenon, socially, psychologically and philosophically. Most of my students, and most of my friends’ kids, have Facebook pages, and I see the amazing accumulation of “friends” displayed on their sites—in some cases thousands. I think it probably compares to “counting coup” in the Old West, a new form of collection mania, or transition rites of adolescence (such as collecting phone numbers that you’ll never, ever call—as if they’re proofs of friendship). I assume that everybody knows this is just a new term for temporary, occasional contacts, and not genuine friends, but even so, words are seductive, and some of these contacts get to know a wealth of details about each other that I (coming from a different time and place—I’m kind of a time traveler. We all are, the older we get) would reserve for perhaps only two or three people in my entire life. A friend, to me, is someone who you do activities with (according to Deborah Tannen: the male friendship model), and/or talk about big and small things with (Tannen: the female model), or both. It doesn’t have to involve proximity: a friend can be a good friend, even if you don’t see them for years. Online/phone contact makes up for physical presence in many of our current friendships. On the other hand, people you see every day and deal with on a superficial level, are acquaintances, not friends. So I am not a big fan of the friending phenomenon online, or the social websites where some people spend part of their social life—perhaps even all of it.
However, I, too, have a Facebook page, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing personal on it, on or behind the Wall. I don’t check it very often, because I don’t maintain it to accumulate friends. From time to time I get “friend” requests from strangers, and I ignore them. But quite often I get such requests from students—former and present. I appreciate the (presumably) amicable intent, and I don’t want to seem rude and alienate nice people—but on the other hand, sharing personal information with students is downright unprofessional for an instructor, and may even be construed as professionally unethical: are you more “friends” with students on your Facebook page than with the students who aren’t on your “friends” list? That could lead to the suspicion of preferential treatment of some students. In addition, it may in some cases invite trouble: some people can’t tell the difference between a real Friend and a Facebook contact, and they don’t know where the line should be drawn. So I don’t add anyone as a friend who is not either a real old face-to-face friend or a colleague I know personally, and on my page I state specifically that I don’t add students as friends.
I still have a dozen other group invitations from various friends. I don’t trust any of them now. I don’t even want to click “ignore” on the odd chance it will somehow corrupt my account and spam all 700-odd people in my FB posse. So this spam attack has effectively killed that feature for me. And if spammers can manipulate Facebook’s group recommendations that easily, imagine what they could do to Facebook’s plan to butter “Like” buttons all over the Web.
We’ll see much more of this erosion of privacy in the future. So your old Professor Cautious recommends: think twice before you share your personal information with selected friends and accumulated strangers on Facebook and elsewhere in Cyberspace…
PS The latest development from The Atlantic: The Facebook Privacy Wars Heat Up.
PPS May 11: In case you were in doubt: here’s what’s been going on since December, according to Wired Epicenter (long and informative article):
So in December, with the help of newly hired Beltway privacy experts, it reneged on its privacy promises and made much of your profile information public by default. That includes the city that you live in, your name, your photo, the names of your friends and the causes you’ve signed onto.
This spring Facebook took that even further. All the items you list as things you like must become public and linked to public profile pages. If you don’t want them linked and made public, then you don’t get them — though Facebook nicely hangs onto them in its database in order to let advertisers target you.
This includes your music preferences, employment information, reading preferences, schools, etc. All the things that make up your profile. They all must be public — and linked to public pages for each of those bits of info — or you don’t get them at all. That’s hardly a choice, and the whole system is maddeningly complex. ……Care to write a status update to your friends? Facebook sets the default for those messages to be published to the entire internet through direct funnels to the net’s top search engines. You can use a dropdown field to restrict your publishing, but it’s seemingly too hard for Facebook to actually remember that’s what you do……Facebook could start with a very simple page of choices: I’m a private person, I like sharing some things, I like living my life in public. Each of those would have different settings for the myriad of choices, and all of those users could then later dive into the control panel to tweak their choices. That would be respectful design – but Facebook isn’t about respect — it’s about re-configuring the world’s notion of what’s public and private…