Facebook flashes your trench coat open

Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook just “updated” its privacy settings, and I almost did not notice. That’s because I’m (Facebook founder) Mark Zuckerberg’s nightmare: I don’t “share” anything on Facebook to begin with, so my Facebook profile contains little to be private about.

But some of those who do share things on Facebook “came close to killing [their] account this week”, as Danny Sullivan did, when they paid attention to the details of the change.

A year ago I predicted in our (The Economist‘s) sister publication, The World in 2009, that this brave new culture of “sharing” would cause discontent. Maybe that point is now nigh. For me personally, it arrived long ago.

Because I used to cover the internet in my previous beat at The Economist, I had to be one of the first to try new things like Facebook, and I usually was. But from the start I made a pact with myself:

  • No pictures of, or (indexable, Googlable) information about, my loved ones.
  • No names, birthdays, diaper photos etc.
  • No drive-by shootings (photo, video, status update) of third parties

In particular, my wife and children should, in effect, not be on the internet at all unless they themselves later choose to put themselves there. You may have noticed that their names do not appear on The Hannibal Blog, even though I share my ideas here quite liberally. Yes, you may know me very intimately by now in an intellectual way–as I feel I know some of you quite intimately through your comments even though I only see your pseudonym and avatar. But you do not know meĀ biographically beyond what I choose to divulge. I practice Platonic sharing.

So why am I Mark’s nightmare? Because getting people to share all that other sort of stuff–the biographical and, in particular, the intimate bits–is his mission, his strategy, his imperative, as he himself already told me two and a half years ago, before he was famous.

(Ironically, that was one of the hardest interviews I ever conducted, because Mark, well, would not share anything. In conversation, I mean. He gives short, linear, monosyllabic answers. Getting him to open up offline is like getting blood out of a stone.)

To make people feel secure enough to share more, Facebook subsequently introduced increasingly complex (“granular” was Mark’s word) privacy settings. By fiddling around with dials and such, you could determine how public/private your photos, updates, contact info etc were.

I never bothered, because I hate fiddling and, well, I had made that pact, so I didn’t care. There was nothing to keep private.

But I watched, with curiosity verging on shock, what information I began to see, in my peripheral Facebook vision, about my Facebook contacts. If I may generalize: The men shared thoughts and opinions, intended to be public, and the women shared baby photos and such that used to be considered intimate. (The differences between men and women on Facebook go a lot further.) I occasionally felt like a voyeur, and became bashful. Surely I was not meant to see all of this? Or perhaps I was? Perhaps I just belong to a different era, such as Hannibal’s.

But, based on my conversation with Mark all those (internet) eons ago, I always knew that Facebook was a pair of scissors that would sooner or later cut. The two blades are these:

  • For Facebook to stay interesting to its users, Mark needs people to share ever more of this stuff.
  • For Facebook to stay interesting to Mark and his investors, he needs to start doing things with that information, things that go beyond just showing the information to your friends.

A lot of people will be cut by the “transition tool” that Facebook is now providing as part of its privacy changes. Danny in his post went through it, so read his analysis there. Just one hint: Online, everything is about the “default” option, because that is the one most people will use. You notice that the default setting in the “tool” for who may see most kinds of information is ….


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