Facebook's "Privacy Trainwreck": Exposure, Invasion, and Drama

danah boyd
September 8, 2006

Citation: boyd, danah. 2006. "Facebook's 'Privacy Trainwreck': Exposure, Invasion, and Drama." Apophenia Blog. September 8. http://www.danah.org/papers/FacebookAndPrivacy.html

(If you have comments, please add them to the related entry on my blog. Thank you.)

Background: Facebook implemented a new feature called "News Feeds" that displays every action you take on the site to your friends. You see who added who, who commented where, who removed their relationship status, who joined what group, etc. This is on your front page when you login to Facebook. This upset many Facebook members who responded with outrage. Groups emerged out of protest. Students Against Facebook News Feeds is the largest with over 700,000 members. Facebook issued various press statements that nothing was going to change. On September 5, Mark Zuckerberg (the founder) told everyone to calm down. They didn't. On September 8, he apologized and offered privacy options as an olive branch. Zuckerberg invited everyone to join him live on the Free Flow of Information on the Internet group where hundreds of messages wizzed by in the hour making it hard to follow any thread; the goal was for Facebook to explain its decision. In short, they explained that this is to help people keep tabs on their friends but only their friends and all of this information is public anyhow.

Last night, i asked "Will Facebook learn from its mistake?" In the first paragraph, i alluded to a "privacy trainwreck" and then went on to briefly highlight the political actions that were taking place. I never returned to why i labeled it that way and in my coarseness, i failed to properly convey what i meant by this. So let me explain.

Was all of the information in the News Feeds available to users before? Yes. That's not the point.

In the tech world, we have a bad tendency to view the concept of "private" as a single bit that is either 0 or 1. Either it's exposed or not. When companies make a decision to make data visible in a more "efficient" manner, there is often a panic. And the term "privacy" is often invoked. Think back to when Deja made Usenet searchable. The term is also invoked when companies provide new information to you based on the data you had previously given it. Think back to the shock over Gmail's content-based ad delivery. Neither of these are about privacy in the bit sense but they ARE about privacy in a different sense.

Privacy is not simply about the state of an inanimate object or set of bytes; it is about the sense of vulnerability that an individual experiences. When people feel exposed or invaded, there's a privacy issue.

What happened with Facebook was not about a change in the bit state - it was about people feeling icky. It made people felt icky for different reasons - some felt it for the exposure while others felt it for the invasion. Let me explain.


Have you ever been screaming to be heard in a loud environment when suddenly the music stops and everyone hears the end of your sentence? And then they turn to stare? I'm guessing you turned beet red. (And if you didn't, exposure is not one of your problems.)

When the music was still on, you were still speaking as loudly in a room full of people. Yet, you felt protected by the acoustics and you made a judgement about how loud you should speak based on the understanding of the architecture of the environment. Sure, if someone came closer, they could've overheard you. But you didn't care because it's not abnormal to be overheard and what you were saying wouldn't really matter to them anyhow, right? Security through obscurity.

Yet, when the music turned off, you were suddenly overheard by everyone in the room. What you were saying should still not matter to them, right? But yet you're embarrassed anyhow. You're embarrassed because you committed a huge social faux pas. You worry about being judged based on what you just said even though just moments before it didn't matter if anyone happened to have overhear you. The beet red is your body's reaction to the perceived sense of exposure.

On Facebook, people were wandering around accepting others as friends, commenting on others' pages, etc. If you're a stalker or an anthropologist, you probably noticed that Bob accepted Sally's friendship after Justine's. You may have noticed that Ann wrote on Heather's page but not on Katherine's and you might have wondered why. You may also have caught that QuarterbackTed quietly accepted NerdGilbert's friend request. But even you might not have realized that your officemate joined the "If this group reaches 100,000 my girlfriend will have a threesome" group.

Now, imagine that everyone involved notices all of that. Sally's pissed at Bob; Katherine feels rejected; QuarterbackTed panics and deletes his friendship. And you feel all weird the next time you talk to your officemate. That data was all there before but it was not efficiently accessible. The acoustics changed and the social faux pas are VERY visible.

I hate to bring up Cobot again but dammit, can't we learn from previous mistakes? Cobot was a cute little bot who hung around LambdaMoo ages ago. He quietly collected lots of data for the nice researchers. He wasn't really invading anyone's privacy, was he? I mean, everything that he collected could be overseen by anyone in the room. Still, members felt uncomfortable about his silent presence and asked that he give something back. So, the nice researchers reprogrammed him to answer questions about his observations. Who do i talk to the most? Peter. Who does Peter talk to the most? Dan. WHAT!?!? Why does Peter talk to Dan more than me? Fuck that, i'm not talking to Peter anymore. ... implosion ensues.

Just like with Facebook, all of the data with Cobot was "public." Yet, the fact that it wasn't easily accessible made all the difference. With Cobot, people ran. With Facebook, i'm terrified to click on any buttons for fear of how it might expose me to everyone i'm linked to (who i can't even remember anyhow). Sure, those people are my "friends" in that i've actually met all of them in life at some point. But do i really want to announce to all of them that i'm going to leave the "Queer This!" group? No thank you.

Now, i know that after Mark's changes, i can turn all of this announcing off. And don't worry, i did. But even that's going to be noticeable (and not just because i'm announcing it here). And then i'm accountable for hiding. Lovely bones.


I hate feed readers. All of you know that by now. What i hate about them is that i want to know everything that everyone's written. And i want to see the cool things that they did over the weekend. And i want to follow all of the links that they saved. BUT I CAN'T. I don't have enough time in the day. As a result, feed readers give me the icky feeling of being invaded. And i shudder. And i break down. So i turn cold turkey and imagine-spit at all of the people for writing all of the interesting things.

Gossip is addictive. There's a voyeur in most of us. You want to know what's going on just cuz you can. You want to know all of the good little social tidbits. But is it really beneficial for your life to do so?

First, it changes your relationships with people. You know a lot about them. Worse, your brain is brilliant at pattern recognition and it sees stories in the aggregated data that the computer never intended. (Pause in remembrance of AOL's fuckup.) Just the presence of such data changes your social environment.

Second, Dunbar's 150. That's the maximum number of people you can cognitively keep up with. There's only so much gossip you can take or your brain explodes. The reason that you can connect to hundreds of people on Facebook and actually know them is because you don't really know them that well. Or rather, you don't really keep up with their lives on a daily basis. Sure, you took a class with them and you might want to keep them in your addressbook for future reference because you remember that they live in Boise and it'd be useful in case you ever ended up in Boise. But normally, you wouldn't pay attention to their day-to-day life.

When the data is there, you do pay attention. You're programmed to relish gossip; it's in your genes. This is great for Facebook. It creates stickiness. But is it good for people? I vote no.

Remember the June article on "Social Isolation in America?" This was the one that the press hyped as Americans have fewer friends now than they did 20 years ago. When i read this paper, i started wondering if social media is dangerous. Here's what i'm thinking.

If gossip is too delicious to turn your back on and Flickr, Bloglines, Xanga, Facebook, etc. provide you with an infinite stream of gossip, you'll tune in. Yet, the reason that gossip is in your genes is because it's the human equivalent to grooming. By sharing and receiving gossip, you build a social bond between another human. Yet, what happens when the computer is providing you that gossip asynchronously? I doubt i'm building a meaningful relationship with you when i read your MySpace CuteKitten78. You don't even know that i'm watching your life. Are you really going to be there when i need you?

Sure, strangers are one thing but what about people you sorta know? I have no doubt that strong ties can be maintained through these systems, provided that other forms of synchronous engagement complement the gossip feed. But i also believe that it gives you a fake sense of intimacy for people you don't really know that well. And that fake sense of intimacy is both misleading and dreadfully disappointing.

At Blogher, i moderated a panel on "Sensitive Topics" and one of the things that the panelists said over and over again was how hard it was to handle the strangers who contacted them wanting their help. The thing is that to those public bloggers, these are strangers... but those strangers have been following that blogger's life for quite some time, drawing parallels, finding common ground, feeling connected. It's a devastating blow to realize that the blogger doesn't feel the same way. Without that connection, why should they get involved? Often, they do out of a desire to be helpful, a desire to not see someone in pain. This is manageable the first few times. But what happens when there are new people every day? What happens when there are hundreds of people every day?

I still blame myself for the suicide of a young girl. It was a few years ago now. My Ani DiFranco page was everyone's resource and every day, i got letters from young girls who wanted to tell me about how they had been raped by their uncles, who wanted to tell me how they cut themselves every day. Dear god, i can't tell you how hard that was. I wrote back, i tried to help. I was often behind in my email and i was a bad correspondent; they always wrote back in minutes. Then there was this girl. She detailed how her mother beat her. She told me about her life. She wrote me every day - i wasn't as good at responding. And then she started talking about suicide. I encouraged her to seek help, i asked her where she lived, i gave her national hotline numbers, i tried to find someone at Hotmail who could help (but we all know how customer service is). She came up with excuses as to why she couldn't. Her letters got more and more desperate. And then they stopped. I kept pinging her. Nothing.

The guilt was ravishing. I didn't even know this girl but i felt so terrible. I made contacting me on the Ani page much harder. I vowed not to start engaging again. I just couldn't handle being involved only when strangers were desperate. It was too much.

Being faced with information overload can be a curse. You want to react, you want to notice. But it can make you exhausted. Worse, it can devastate you.

Facebook is giving me the "gift" of infinite gossip. But i don't want it. I can't handle it. And i'm not sure anyone's really ready to receive the One Ring. But it sure sounds precious upfront.


Facebook says that the News Feed is here to say. This makes me sad. I understand why they want to provide it, i understand what users are tempted by it. But i also think that it is unhealthy, socially disruptive, and far worse for the users than the lurking employers ready to strike down upon thee with great vengeance for the mere presence of a red plastic cup.

I also think that it will be gamed. Given a new channel for identity performance, people will begin engaging in a new form of impression management. They already write wall posts to be seen - it will be taken to a new level. Their public displays of connection will take on new strength as they seek to make a performance out of the friending act. They will remove friendship statuses in the most dramatic fashion possible, announcing as far as possible about the evilness of the other person. Facebook News Feeds could make LJ drama look like child's play.

Students Against Facebook News Feeds has well over 700,000 members today. Ben Parr (the moderator) has had his life turned upside down and he's feeling the roller coast ride of sudden micro-fame. I couldn't help but sigh when i saw his note to members of the group.

.. My goal is to slowly return to normality, to a time when I didn't get called out of a room by CBS, to a time when Time Magazine correspondents did not ask for interviews, to a time when I did not have fan clubs, and to and a time when I was not demonized because of Facebook...

As Ben is experiencing, there is anger and confusion in every direction. Many people are pissed and they can't fully articulate why. Others are screaming that they're overreacting and that nothing changed. When it comes to bits, that's true. But the architecture did change this week. And with it, so did the social realities of the site. Facebook lost some of its innocence this week. Even when things return to "normal," a scar will persist. Yet, the question remains: what will the long-term social effects of this "privacy trainwreck" be?


On a related note...

I want to address two other bits of this puzzle: 1) "but you're putting personal stuff up on the Internet"; 2) friends lists.

First, on the personal bits, watch MoBuzz's YouTube video. Yes, people reveal personal stuff to a website. They know that they revealed that information but they still have an assumption about how it is to be presented and the ways that make them comfortable and the things that make them go ick. This is really about context, context, context. As i've said before, there's no way that people can comfortably negotiate all contexts at all time. They could retreat and go into hyper private mode but what kind of life is that? People choose to make risks based on what they assume the architectural affordances and norms of a space to be. I think that asking people to retreat into paranoia is completely unreasonable. Instead, i think we need to find ways of providing reasonable levels of protection and comfort, recognizing that there are always risks when you are still breathing.

Second, the friends list. Why does everyone assume that Friends equals friends? Here are some of the main reasons why people friend other people on social network sites:

  1. Because they are actual friends
  2. To be nice to people that you barely know (like the folks in your class)
  3. To keep face with people that they know but don't care for
  4. As a way of acknowledging someone you think is interesting
  5. To look cool because that link has status
  6. (MySpace) To keep up with someone's blog posts, bulletins or other such bits
  7. (MySpace) To circumnavigate the "private" problem that you were forced to use cuz of your parents
  8. As a substitute for bookmarking or favoriting
  9. Cuz it's easier to say yes than no if you're not sure

The term "friend" in the context of social network sites is not the same as in everyday vernacular. And people know this. This is why they used to say fun things like "Well, she's my Friendster but not my friend." (The language doesn't work out so cleanly on Facebook.) The term is terrible but it means something different on these sites; it's not to anyone's advantage to assume that the rules of friendship apply to Friendship.