The Common Good
April 2010

Just Friends?

by Julie Polter | April 2010

Facebook and the redefinition of privacy.

On Facebook I get the daily news, hyperlocal-yet-global edition: A former co-worker’s baby sits up for the first time. Links are shared for a funny video, an insightful political commentary, a vacation photo album. A friend tries to calm his nerves while his room in Kabul shakes in the midst of multiple bombings. Family members crack wise. Someone makes a delicious soup for dinner; someone else mourns an older brother gone too soon.

Facebook claims more than 350 million active users and is the largest social network in the world, thanks to a free, easy-to-use interface for sharing thoughts, photos, links, and more with those you designate as “friends” among other Facebook users. It has expanded far beyond its original college-student base. According to analysis by marketing firm iStrategyLabs, the largest percentage of growth last year among U.S. Facebook users was in the 55+ age group—an increase of 922.7 percent, to nearly 10 million people. The same analysis finds that 29 percent of U.S. Facebook users are age 35 to 54.
Many Christians are among those eagerly embracing Facebook and other social media. Teched-up trendwatchers for Jesus see new ways to evangelize, to grow churches and link people within churches, to build community online; they don’t doubt that the Holy Spirit has an app for that. Pope Benedict XVI recently enthused, “The world of digital communication, with its almost limitless expressive capacity, makes us appreciate all the more St. Paul’s exclamation: ‘Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.’”
What is not so clear is how savvy many Facebook users (Christian and otherwise) are to the full range of privacy issues related to social networking.
Facebook can seem almost like a private party, since by definition it’s a place you go where everybody knows your name (at least for those of us too old to have “friended” an entire mega-university graduating class). Or maybe like a virtual church picnic, small-town basketball game, or class reunion—semi-public, attended by people with whom you have different degrees of relationship, but you retain control of who enters. (No one can make you invite the mean girls to this party.)
Facebook has targeted itself to users as a place where anyone can “interact with the people they know in a trusted environment.” But to potential advertisers and application developers, it’s a “platform that enables companies and engineers to deeply integrate with the Facebook website and gain access to millions of users through the social graph.” Facebook says it has more than 500,000 applications—quizzes, games, and delivery systems for virtual hugs, food, blessings, liquor, even virtual postcards featuring the pope (yes, the pontiff has an app)—created by an estimated 1 million third-party developers and entrepreneurs.
An expanding base of users and the activity buzzing back and forth between them on the threads of Facebook’s massive web are key assets for the company’s future profitability. Advertisers, marketers, and app developers all want as much information about users as they can get.
Now, we’ve all heard of people who reveal far too much in photos or indiscreet posts, then suffer bad consequences when an employer or romantic interest does an Internet search. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers recently noted that social networking sites have become a common source of evidence used in divorce cases. Even without exhibitionism, people’s personal standards of what’s appropriate to share in a Facebook post vary: Most of us are delighted to know a friend’s baby is on its way, but don’t need to know how many centimeters the cervix is dilated. And technology affects culture. Most people in their 20s or younger have grown up surrounded by and using several communication devices. They were formed while negotiating a much more permeable public-private divide than those of us who are older.
But the insatiable commercial hunger for information might insult human dignity just as much as unfortunate frat party photos. We might assume that it’s our decision whether we send lists of everyone we know out to the universe or make our vacation snapshots viewable by anyone on the Web. Many people would also first want to ask friends, or the cousins who went with us to Maui, whether they wanted their names or images released.
Circumspection, however, is not advantageous to social networks, search engines, and other online entities vying for information and users. In December, Facebook announced new, “simplified” privacy settings, which, for the most part, were widely assessed to be neither simple nor aimed toward privacy as much as toward disclosure. For example, the company’s new default settings make most content available to “everyone” (meaning anyone with Internet access) until a user changes each setting.
Perhaps most troubling (and most controversial), Facebook announced a new category of “publicly available information,” to include name, profile picture, current city, gender, networks, the pages that you are a “fan” of, and friend list. The user is not allowed to restrict access to these items. Besides being personally invasive, indiscriminate distribution of the names of associates can carry various practical implications, the worst being for Facebook users in countries prone to persecution of religious minorities or political dissidents.
In the case of friend lists, the push-back was so great that within a couple of days Facebook provided an option to make your friend list invisible to other Facebook users and nonusers. But the company noted they still considered the information public and that the list would be available to any app a person used.
In January, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said that people are happy to share more information, with more people, than before—his company was simply making updates to “reflect ... the current social norms.” Which rings false, considering the outcry those very updates had caused the month before. But by pushing users to reveal more about themselves and by changing the rules of a network that is extremely popular and still expanding, Facebook may assume it can reset societal norms to its liking.
Pragmatically—or cynically—in a society where E-ZPasses and grocery store discount cards electronically track our movements and transactions, while ubiquitous cameras look on, maybe Facebook is just one more place where our lives are monitored and commodified: not a big deal, the invisible price of modern life. Advocates of expanded government surveillance and data collection will often respond to critics by saying that the only reason to worry is if you have something to hide. Perhaps privacy is a quaint relic. Emily Nussbaum, in a New York magazine article about generational differences in the understanding of privacy, wrote, “it may be time to consider the possibility that young people who behave as if privacy doesn’t exist are actually the sane people, not the insane ones.”
But a strong argument exists for holding on to privacy, not just to protect our information, but to keep ourselves fully human. Security blogger Bruce Schneier wrote:
Privacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect ... We do nothing wrong when we make love or go to the bathroom. We are not deliberately hiding anything when we seek out private places for reflection or conversation. We keep private journals, sing in the privacy of the shower, and write letters to secret lovers and then burn them. Privacy is a basic human need.
One might argue that the thin slice of us that fits online is no substitute for the real thing—therefore our souls are unscathed and unsurveilled, and we’ll have privacy in the sky by and by. But we also are who we are in community, shaped and defined by our “friend list” from birth to death. There’s something sacred carried in the threads that connect our physical, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional networks, something not meant to be reduced to a commodity to be bought and sold.
So do we need to give up our Facebook? That, like deciding whom we share our thoughts with, is a personal choice. For now, for me, I’m choosing to live with the trade-offs. I’ve dialed my privacy settings up and am trying to fast from adding new applications, though I’m resigned that some of my data is flying here and there whenever a Facebook friend adds an app. And I’m trying to more actively follow and support the work of pro-technology civil liberties and privacy advocates, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU of Northern California’s “Demand Your dotRights” campaign.
The psalmist wrote, “O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me ... You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do” (Psalm 139:1-3). We can’t deny God such intimate knowledge and close scrutiny. But businesses and governments aren’t God.
Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.
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