Some people read Facebook’s near 180-degree change in how new users experience privacy as a response to pressure from privacy advocates and policymakers. I don’t think so. It’s largely a response to something even more powerful: changes in how users are using social media – all kinds of social media, not just Facebook.
We’re seeing a lot of the changes right in our own experiences and households. They partly reflect users’ collective response to technology’s rapid evolution, but users’ interests and practices are changing too.
- Weary of reputation worries: Possibly because they’re tired of reputation fears and reminders that their posts go into a permanent, searchable global archive, users increasingly like social media services that blend mobile, ephemeral, spontaneous and private (see this about self-presentation fatigue).
- Global fishbowl: Partly because they don’t want to be in a giant fishbowl that aggregates them with everybody else, including grandparents, teachers and former boy/girlfriends and partly because so many new apps and services offer a gazillion ways to socialize, options are growing and diversifying.
- Mobile-fueled multiplying options: Digital socializing has more and more layers – e.g., mobile chat for hanging out, texting for a private conversation, Snapchat for a joke between intimates, etc.
- Privacy mitosis: In a kind of privacy mitosis, degrees of privacy are multiplying into buckets like anonymous and public, identified and public (to grow a following), identified but private to members of a peer group, private and one-on-one, and public self-presentation (to make an impression or do spin control) – to name a few obvious ones.
Because of all that diversification and all the options it gives users, the pressure is on Facebook the giant, global, general service to give users exactly what they want, no surprises (which is basic corporate responsibility and good for advertisers). “The company recently concluded that its growth depended on customers feeling more confident that they were sharing intimate details of their lives with only the right people,” wrote New York Times tech writer Vindu Goel, citing Pew Internet research showing that “nearly 9 in 10 Internet users have taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints.” Facebook doesn’t want to mess that up.
Goel mentions a number of recent changes at Facebook, but the two latest ones are a privacy checkup “conducted by a cartoon dinosaur” that “every one of its 1.28 billion users worldwide” will get and (that 180-degree change I mentioned above) new users having their initial posts set so that only friends can see them. They can change over to public posting, but private will be the default for new users from now on.
So I think the changes at Facebook are more about user power than regulatory power. And this is only the beginning. Right now it’s a collective (mostly) unconscious – millions of users “voting” with, if not their fingers, their diversifying digital social practices. What will it be like when they’re creating change as a collective conscious?
- “Facebook to Let Users Limit Data Revealed by Log-Ins” in the New York Times last month
- “The anonymity trend and self-presentation fatigue”
- “Social Web privacy & a new kind of social contract we’re all signed onto” (an idea I floated back in 2010)
Disclosure: Facebook and other Internet companies support ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit organization I co-direct.