This is the second in a series of posts where I nitpick some of the little and not-so-little issues I have with Facebook. Read 24 Hours Of Facebook Part 1.

Facebook and Privacy

16,800 results and counting.

That’s the number of results returned by the Google search of facebook “privacy issues” indexed over the past year.  Yes, I’m sure all the results aren’t negative and the words are common enough that there could be some variance. But the number is still staggering and obviously serious issues exist.

First, a primer on the impact of social networks on your “privacy” from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada:

As a web marketing consultant I can attest to the fact that my clients are constantly seeking metrics and data on the visitors to their sites. We measure almost anything and everything we can about each visitor: What country are they in and what language do they speak? What operating system and browser do they use? How often do they visit and how long do they stay at the site? Et cetera ad nauseum. Even more information is often provided by the visitor in the form of opt-ins. Now we have names and email addresses to match metrics. In marketing terms, they’re conversions.

But I’ve had to sternly remind my clients that there are lines in the sand that cannot be crossed, trusts that cannot be abused. All of my clients have understood that the social mores of trust and privacy in the real world also exist online. In addition, the ethics of reciprocity usually quell any further desire that a client may have to attain more information than necessary to “serve” their visitor.

Facebook (and MySpace and many other social networks) do not seem to have these lines in the sand. Listen to Clay Shirky, NYU professor and social media expert:

(Is Mo Rocca really serious about his level of privacy being inversely related to his privacy?! It can sometimes be hard to tell what a satirist is really saying.)

The most profound statement by Shirky:

“…the defaults for all of these things are set to increase social awareness. It’s not we’re defaulting to private and we’re letting you make it public –we’re defaulting to public and letting you make it private.” [Emphasis added to reflect Shirky’s change from first person plural to third person plural]

Facebook does attempt to warn you about your privacy but not during the new account setup process. In fact, there are hardly any tooltips, popups, etc that point you to immediate helpful information regarding your privacy once you start tweaking your public and non-public profile. (There are brief answers from little ? icons.) They believe this Facebook Principles and Privacy Policy statement and this “Safety” page provide you with everything you need to know about your privacy on Facebook. They remind you over and over again in the Privacy Policy that your privacy is your responsibility. Caveat emptor. However, these reminders are nowhere to be found within your home, profile, friends, and inbox pages. There is also a stark irony here: the first thing Facebook asks you when you login is “What are you doing right now?”.

Before You Answer That Question…

If you haven’t done so already, update your privacy settings on Facebook. Now! Thanks to the overwhelmingness of the Facebook interface post-signup…dumping you in media res when you’re done…you may not have done what you should have but you can fix that now. Here’s a fine HOWTO from NextAdvisor I came across that seems to cover all the bases. If they missed anything, be sure to let them know, comment here and post it all over Facebook.

One last word for other parents: get your minor kids off MySpace and Facebook. We adults barely understand the realm of online privacy. Do you think they have a better grasp than you?