Building a community: the implications of Facebook’s new features for privacy and community

May 6th, 2010 by Grace Meng

As I described in my last post, the differences between MySpace and Facebook are so stark, they don’t feel like natural competitors to me.  One isn’t necessarily better than the other.  Rather, one is catering to people who are looking for more of a public, party atmosphere, and the other is catering to people who want to feel like they can go to parties that are more exclusive and/or more intimate, even when they have 1000 friends.

But this difference doesn’t mean that one’s personal information on Facebook is necessarily more “private” than on MySpace.  MySpace can feel more public.  There is no visible wall between the site and the rest of the Internet-browsing community.  But Facebook’s desire to make more of its users’ information public is no secret.  For Facebook to maintain its brand, though, it can’t just make all information public by default.  This is a company that grew by promising Harvard students a network just for them, then Ivy League students a network just for them, and even now, it promises a network just for you and the people you want to connect with.

Facebook needs to remain a space where people feel like they can define their connections, rather than be open to anyone and everyone, even as more information is being shared.

And just in time for this post, Facebook rolled out new features that demonstrate how it is trying to do just that.

Facebook’s new system of Connections, for example, links information from people’s personal profiles to community pages, so that everyone who went to Yale Law School, for example, can link to that page. Although you could see other “Fans” of the school on the school’s own page before, the Community page puts every status update that mentions the school in one place, so that you’re encouraged to interact with others who mention the school.  The Community Pages make your presence on Facebook visible in new ways, but primarily to people who went to the same school as you, who grew up in the same town, who have the same interests.

Thus, even as information is shared beyond current friends, Facebook is trying to reassure you that mini-communities still exist.  You are not being thrown into the open.

Social plug-ins similarly “personalize” a Facebook user’s experience by accessing the user’s friends.  If you go to CNN.com, you’ll see which stories your friends have recommended.  If you “Like” a story on that site, it will appear as an item in your Facebook newsfeed.  The information that is being shared thus maps onto your existing connections.

The “Personalization” feature is a little different in that it’s not so much about your interactions with other Facebook users, but about your interaction with other websites.  Facebook shares the public information on your profile with certain partners.  For example, if you are logged into Facebook and you go to the music site Pandora, Pandora will access public information on your profile and play music based on the your “Likes.”

This experience is significantly different from the way people explore music on MySpace.  MySpace has taken off as a place for bands to promote themselves because people’s musical preferences are public.  MySpace users actively request to be added to their favorite bands’ pages, they click on music their friends like, and thus browse through new music.  All of these actions are overt.

Pandora, on the other hand, recommends new music to you based on music you’ve already indicated you “Like” on your profile.   But it’s not through any obvious activity on your part.  You may have noted publicly that you “Like” Alicia Keys on your Facebook profile page, but you didn’t decide to actively plug that information into Pandora.  Facebook has done it for you.

Depending on how you feel about Facebook, you may think that’s wonderfully convenient or frighteningly intrusive.

And this is ultimately why Facebook’s changes feel so troubling for many people.

Although they aren’t ripping down the walls of its convention center and declaring an open party. As Farhad Manjoo at Slate says, Facebook is not tearing down its walls but “expanding them.”

Facebook is making peepholes in certain walls, or letting some people (though not everyone) into the parties users thought were private.

This reinforces the feeling that mini-communities continue to exist within Facebook, something the company should try to do as it’s a major draw for many of its users.

Yet the multiplication of controls on Facebook for adjusting your privacy settings makes clear how difficult it is to share information and maintain this sense of mini-communities.  There are some who suspect Facebook is purposefully making it difficult to opt-out.  But even if we give Facebook the benefit of the doubt, it’s undeniable that the controls as they were, plus the controls that now exist for all the new features, are bewildering.  Just because users have choices doesn’t mean they feel confident about exercising them.

On MySpace, the prevailing ethos of being more public has its own pitfalls.  A teenager posting suggestive photos of herself may not fully appreciate what she’s doing.  At the least, though, she knows her profile is public to the world.

On Facebook, users are increasingly unsure of what information is public and to whom.  That arguably is more unsettling than total disclosure.

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