This is a big issue and though I don’t have any deep new observations about this, I want to share some thoughts from using Facebook for a few weeks. This isn’t necessarily Facebook-specific, but that’s a recent example for me.
The basic problem is who gets to know what about me. Short of someone doing something illegal and stealing, say, confidential payroll information, I’m talking about the information that is out there on the web that comes from my explicit placement of personal data or by observations of my activities.
Before I get into the sites like Facebook, let me say that I know that I have this very blog and have been running it for close to 39 months. There’s a lot in here that describes me as a person, and not just musical tastes and proclivities toward certain kinds of carpentry projects. This blog is part of the information that can be mined about me. I get to control the input though I cannot control what people do with the information. There are a few areas of discussion of which I am particularly mindful, and I try to keep on the careful if not overly conservative side of those.
The problem with Facebook is that I think people get on it and get all excited by the connections you can make with other people, the groups you can join, and the applications you can install. This is about social networking, after all, and the value of the network goes up when you are connected to more people in more ways.
Have you carefully examined your privacy settings so that you are sure who can see what about you? Do you read all those check boxes when you install an application?
I belong to three Facebook networks: IBM (population 24,611), Harvard (population 50,458), and Princeton (population 16,067). Even allowing for some overlap, there are probably at least 60,000 people in my networks. Do I really want to have my cell phone number visible to “All my networks and all my friends”? What about my other information? I have no qualms with anyone knowing that I am married, but I should make a conscious decision about every bit of information and the access control to it. So should you, I think.
Similarly, do you want people to know to which groups you belong? If I were to look at all the groups of which you are a member, what could I learn about you? How would this help me market goods and services to you? Could this eventually be used to make decisions about you such as whether you are a good credit risk or the right kind of person for a job? Could it be used to remove you from a job?
You get to decide. I’m not trying to be Chicken Little and tell you that the sky is falling, but you need to actively think about what you are doing on these sites and how the explicit or implicit data you will be providing is going to be used, possibly together with other information.
Incidentally, this same advice applies to virtual worlds like Second Life. The groups to which you belong are visible to others. I’ve learned more that I wanted to know about certain people by casually looking at the collection of their groups. You might want to think about that if you wander into some inworld location that you don’t want discussed around the water cooler in the morning.
How long do you think it will take for there to be a program where I can type in someone’s real name or avatar name and pull up all sorts of data about them from social networking and virtual worlds? In the novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, stringers are paid to endlessly collect all sorts of information and pump it into a huge online library. Royalties get paid at an increasing rate as the information is found to be more valuable. Is anyone watching you? Do you care?
What this means, I think, is that you really need to think twice about quickly signing up for networks, groups and applications in social networking sites without thinking through the implications. By all means, do join up for them if you conclude it’s within your comfort level. Do Twitter if you want people to see and possibly use that information. (If I watched your Twitter “tweets” for a week, what could I learn about you?)
If you were watching my Facebook information feed last week you would have seen a couple of entries along the lines of “Robert is getting nervous about Facebook and thinking about quitting” and “Robert is stripping back to a minimal Facebook configuration.” After a few weeks on Facebook I came to the conclusion that I was overextended group- and application-wise. I removed myself from most of my groups and deleted the majority of the applications I had installed. Since then I have carefully added some back in, and I have stared at and reset many of my privacy settings.
I think social networks like Facebook are quite valuable and can be kept within reasonable risk levels, but this does not come for free. You need to work at building up your network of “friends” but you also have to work at being particular about the details you expose. You need to understand that the information can be used in an aggregate. That is, while one little piece of data might seem harmless, what will it imply or allow when combined with all the rest of the pieces that are out there?
By all means use social networks, just use them with forethought and consideration.