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Privacy and Social Networking: If I Poke you, it indicates that I’m online, and I’m thinking about you.
December 8, 2008 10:45 AM   Subscribe

Facebook and the Social Dynamics of Privacy (coming soon to the Iowa Law Review), by James Grimmelmann (law professor, programmer, MeFi's own grimmelm, and Level 1 Ensign Zombie): just in time for Facebook Connect and Google Friend Connect, Grimmelmann suggests we rethink what privacy means both in legal terms and how that impacts social networks and their users. (Previously)

Don't miss the AskMe footnote on page 46 recounting Brandon Blatcher's Facebook fiasco and a cute reference to Hamlet's Facebook feed on p 27.
posted by ahughey (39 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ultimately, this is a story abut people doing things together, which really means it’s a story about people. New technologies matter when they change the dynamics of how people do things together; the challenge for technology law is always to adapt itself to these changing dynamics. Laws are made for people, and we lose sight of that fact at our peril.
posted by ahughey at 10:46 AM on December 8, 2008


I wish this was a link to something, because it's a topic I'm very interested in. But it appears to be a link to something that doesn't exist yet. Is that correct? A link to something that might be cool later?
posted by aapep at 10:49 AM on December 8, 2008


I've thought for a long time that privacy was miscast. We evolved as a culture from small communities where everyone knew everyone else's business: who visited whom, who was sick and of what, who was getting married, who had a child, who owed money to whom, etc. Privacy to many people these days means anonymity. That a security camera might record your presence at a particular place is seen as an invasion of privacy, even though it is a public place and anyone can see that you are there.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:52 AM on December 8, 2008 [5 favorites]


Turns out people are willing to turn over all their private details to corporations in exchange for the ability to throw virtual sheep at their friends.
posted by delmoi at 10:55 AM on December 8, 2008 [11 favorites]


Is this the thread when I worry about my mom (on Facebook) seeing the skanky-looking pictures of some of my friends (on Facebook)?

(Because that really wigs me out. Some worlds should not collide.)
posted by rokusan at 10:59 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


META: *deep doleful sigh*
posted by infini at 11:02 AM on December 8, 2008


But it appears to be a link to something that doesn't exist yet.

There's a link to download the paper (PDF) next to the abstract.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 11:02 AM on December 8, 2008


oh, and btw, if you even think about poking me I'm going to bop you with the pillow I have held up threateningly with my hand right now, as if you can miss the damn thing ;p
posted by infini at 11:04 AM on December 8, 2008


I follow the Mother-Wife-Boss-Stranger strategy. I assume that everything I post anywhere on the internet will eventually be read by my mother, my wife, my boss, and every perfect stranger that I might want to know. If any of that distresses me, I don't post the info.

Of course, now my mother, my wife, my boss, and a stranger all know that I do this. Curses!
posted by gurple at 11:04 AM on December 8, 2008 [4 favorites]


That a security camera might record your presence at a particular place is seen as an invasion of privacy, even though it is a public place and anyone can see that you are there.

How would you feel if, standing in a public place some stranger was just staring at you, and wouldn't look away even if you did the whole "I see you looking at me, now I'll look away and then check back to make sure you've stopped" thing? It would be unnerving for most people I think.

So the difference with a security camera is that you can see the other people and you can tell if they're looking at you. But with a security camera, you can't tell. You can't see the person behind the camera, you don't know if or why they might be looking, etc.

That's just one major difference between seeing other people on the street, and being monitored by a camera. There's also the whole being recorded aspect, and the fact that if you have a vast CCTV network like Britain, you can be tracked all over town. People wouldn't like being followed by a stranger staring at them either.
posted by delmoi at 11:08 AM on December 8, 2008 [2 favorites]


Very interesting. I've not had a chance to read the entire thing yet, so I apologise if the following misses some of the points touched on.

Online privacy and specifically facebook is the only thing that my girlfriend and I have ever argued about. She abhors having an online presence and goes to great length to avoid it. I've been building one, more or less associated with my real name, for over a decade. Some of my accumulated online profile is intentional, some of it isn't. It doesn't bother me as my concept of privacy is, I guess, slightly different from a lot of people.

All of my internet 'existence' is controlled by other people and companies. Google for gmail and my internet searches. Metafilter for a lot discussions and personal anecdotes/opinions. Blogger/livejournal/facebook for social networking and collected online presence. Countless internet-sellers for my purchases. Some I trust more than others, but ultimately I don't feel too threatened by it all. I guess the distinction is that I am aware of this and feel I can make an informed decision based on my own comfort levels.

The problem is that this related to technology. I can explain all this to my parents and my sister. I can't get the idea across to my grandmother or some of my co-workers. I'm not sure if my sister will be able to explain this to her kid when he grows up. The information is out there, but it needs to be more transparent, available and understood. Teaching people about the ins and outs of how to control what and who gets to see stuff online is important and this paper seems like a valuable endeavour to push some of that responsibility to the service providers.
posted by slimepuppy at 11:16 AM on December 8, 2008 [3 favorites]


in exchange for the ability to throw virtual sheep at their friends.

Snowballs, man. Virtual snowballs. I don't hold with this sheep-throwing nonsense. Kids today!
posted by rtha at 11:20 AM on December 8, 2008


I follow the Mother-Wife-Boss-Stranger strategy. I assume that everything I post anywhere on the internet will eventually be read by my mother, my wife, my boss, and every perfect stranger that I might want to know. If any of that distresses me, I don't post the info.

Of course, now my mother, my wife, my boss, and a stranger all know that I do this. Curses!


I have a similar strategy, though I think of it as "is this office-safe?" I post a lot of stuff on Flickr, but I only post things that I would be equally comfortable hanging in my office where my students, colleagues, dean, l etc. could see it. I try to keep my Facebook profile similarly work-safe. Plus, I'm not interested in the Facebook corporate overlords knowing all my deep, intimate thoughts and my likes and dislikes, thankyouverymuch.

Oh also, I posted this to my Facebook profile!
posted by DiscourseMarker at 11:20 AM on December 8, 2008


A second difference to note is that a random stranger might see you on the street, but there is only a very small likelihood that a stranger would retain a permanent memory of seeing you, and perhaps some day use this memory to do things like prove you are unfit for a job you are applying to years from now.

Think of all the dumb, stupid, asinine shit you did when you were in college (or, if you are in college, the shit you did last weekend). If that were all on camera, and a matter of public record, would you be happy about that? All of us deserve to be idiots once in a while while we are growing up without the fear that our actions might some day come back to ruin our lives as adults.

Part of this involves educating younger people about the potential hazards of sharing too much information with too many people. But a large part of this also depends on the willingness of the community to protect our individual right to prevent private matters from becoming public more often than is necessary.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:22 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've setup two Facebook accounts and both lasted one single, solitary day. The first was a profile called "The Lion King" that displayed my tenants' cat which I had a groomer shave like a lion while they were away in Mexico - you know, leave the 'mane', some booties and a tuft at the end of the tail. My way of telling them - next time don't steal my car while it's preheating in the morning before work and have me report it to the police, while my girlfriend cries her eyes out because she left the door open. Their ideas for revenge were never realized once my tenant's mother told her if she continued the cycle, I'd probably end up murdering her. As a side note, I expected their reaction to be anger at first and then they'd find it funny... EXACT opposite. They arrived home from their trip and were floored by laughter. Needless to say, the next month was a vary passive aggressive one, until I was like 'enough is enough, people'. I did feel horrible when their long hair's beautiful white fur grew back in dark and really fine.

The other day, I had to give the same tenants (and old friends) notice that my brother is moving back to Toronto and so they have to be out by April 1. We decided to start another group where I was their landlord who unceremoniously evicted them. There were photos up of our house with tonnes of furniture and clothing on the front lawn, etc. The thread or wall became pretty fuckin' nasty and a joke which should've only included friends who'd find this sort of humour funny, was also public to her 'other' friends and family. She soon began getting emails and calls from around the world to make sure she was okay.

Fuck Facebook.
posted by gman at 11:26 AM on December 8, 2008


While we're at it, can someone explain the difference between a "social network site" and a "community weblog"? I don't think I belong to any of the former, but I do belong to one of the latter (I won't tell you which one!)
posted by twoleftfeet at 11:33 AM on December 8, 2008 [4 favorites]


I finally sold my soul to one of those third party widget makers on Facebook last night in order to get the iLike thing that allows you to post music to your profile, but only because I feel my mostly egghead friends desperately (DESPERATELY) need to be educated about grindcore.
posted by The Straightener at 11:52 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


A social networking site's purpose is for people to link up to each other and talk to each other. The content is the relationship.

A community weblog allows people to post interesting things they find on the internet. The content is the thing they find on the internet. If friendships are formed through commenting on said content, it is a lovely side effect, not its purpose.
posted by Phire at 11:55 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


um. hmmmm
posted by infini at 12:02 PM on December 8, 2008


I was thinking about this recently. My generation (X) embraced the web because it held a promise of anonymity. But "kids today" seem to embrace the web because they think it will make them famous.

Of course, I may be full of it.
posted by JoanArkham at 12:09 PM on December 8, 2008 [5 favorites]


It's also good to keep in mind with all these discussions about internet privacy and social networking that the internet is ultimately designed for and in the service of porn.

I think we forget that sometimes here at MetaFilter.
posted by slimepuppy at 12:11 PM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


Phire, I don't mean to be unnecessarily naive about this, but to the extent that Metafilter has a "contacts" feature shouldn't it also be considered a "social network site", even if that isn't the dominant purpose? In contrast, a site that allows people to post interesting things and comment on them could be called "social bookmarking site". If someone posts an interesting link on their Facebook or MySpace page then are they social networking or social bookmarking?

I guess I'm just confused about what the precise distinction between some of these sites would be. I haven't given the matter a lot of deep thought, but I suspect that someone attracted to this thread may have. Arguably a precise distinction isn't really that important, but in general discussions about privacy and so on it seems beneficial to have precise terminology.

Should I be any less worried about revealing personal information on Metafilter than I would be on Facebook?
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:15 PM on December 8, 2008


I bet this guy is dying that the Jon Favreau/Clinton cutout thing didn't break just a leeetle sooner.

Mental Wimp says: I've thought for a long time that privacy was miscast. We evolved as a culture from small communities where everyone knew everyone else's business: who visited whom, who was sick and of what, who was getting married, who had a child, who owed money to whom, etc.

The author's argument actually takes this into account: He doesn't say that belonging to a community and sharing information are dangerous (in fact, his argument assumes these are good and desirable things), but rather explores why users treat social networking sites as safe communities, when they're anything but. He argues that the sites themselves and an array of faulty heuristics cause people to misunderstand and underestimate the risks of participation, and say and do things they wouldn't if they really understood the possible consequences. Facebook is interesting because it promises a private, closed experience, but the community is much easier to betray than a real-life circle, and worlds can collide with scary frequency online.

More and more people I know (myself included) use Facebook as a one-stop shop: my friendlist includes work contacts, friends, family, and readers/viewers of the media my company produces. I'm careful to edit myself as much as possible on FB, because I don't want some stupid status update or drunk pic undermining the authoritative voice my magazine has, or my political views affecting my work experience, or, or, or. All in all, real life is much easier!
posted by peachfuzz at 12:22 PM on December 8, 2008


gman you sound like a really interesting person and that was a great use of facebook
posted by ChickenringNYC at 12:22 PM on December 8, 2008


We evolved as a culture from small communities where everyone knew everyone else's business: who visited whom, who was sick and of what, who was getting married, who had a child, who owed money to whom, etc. Privacy to many people these days means anonymity.

But there's a difference between a small community that knows everything about you and a global computer network that knows everything about you. If you live in a small town and they never let you forget the stupid things you did when you were a teenager, you can move somewhere else. But if the #1 hit on Google for your name is something you don't want people to know, you're screwed no matter where you go.

Also, the Internet is now a major form of communication, and there's never been a form of communication that is as permanent and public as some things on the Internet. There are Usenet conversations which have my real life name in them from 15 years ago, which can now be easily accessed by anyone on Google. I had no idea back then that 15 years later someone would be able to do a search and look them up. Those sorts of issues didn't really exist before it was possible to store billions of pages of text and make them available to everyone in the world.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:28 PM on December 8, 2008


If you've ever donated to a charity, bought something from a catalog or online, bought or rented a house or apartment, or any of the other things we do every day to live our lives, someone is recording something about you.
posted by maxwelton at 12:33 PM on December 8, 2008


But with a security camera, you can't tell. You can't see the person behind the camera, you don't know if or why they might be looking, etc.

Interesting.

I'm under security cameras all the time at work. Some of them are designed to track me, to automatically activate on the operator's monitors when I activate a motion sensor. Some do not. Some are visible, some are hidden. Some of the visible ones are fake. I know where most of them are, but I'm positive there are some I don't know about. All of them are recording, all the time. I can't even surreptitiously adjust my underwear without it being recorded for posterity. I used to be a little freaked out by it; now I liken it to being on the longest, most boring reality show ever. If someone sees something a little embarrassing, so be it - as long as I don't do anything grievously horrible, illegal, or strange under the camera's unblinking eye, it's most likely lost to the sheer volume of footage. But even though I am alone, there's always a chance that my actions will be observed.

So it is with the internet. I get the impression that many people are lulled by an illusion of privacy, created by the fact that they're posting at home in their underwear while eating cold ravioli out of a can with a plastic spork, into doing or saying things they wouldn't if they thought for a moment about the fact that it's going to be recorded for posterity for all to see. The sheer volume of content generally keeps most things from being uncovered, but it's not a guarantee.

So I suppose what I'm saying here is that the possibility that my boss could see footage of me picking my nose has uniquely qualified me to throw a spaghetti cat at my mother.
posted by louche mustachio at 12:45 PM on December 8, 2008 [2 favorites]


twoleftfeet: No, that's definitely a good point.

Examples of "Web 1.0" that were not social in any shape or form were probably online versions of Newspaper sites, or personal pages - anything that was pure dissemination of information without regard as to reader input, except maybe through emailing whomever was listed on the "Contact us" page. The "rise of web 2.0", for all that the term is pretentious and irritating, is basically supposed to signify a rise in interaction and user input.

So I think we're basically assuming that any website that involves users and interaction between people will necessarily be social in some capacity, probably because humans are by nature gregarious, and will interact when given the chance. Metafilter still more or less follows a BBS (bulletin board system) even if the hierarchy and organization of threads and discussions isn't in the typical format. So yes, if you would like, you could call Metafilter a social bookmarking site, much like del.icio.us, which actually calls itself that.

The distinction between Metafilter and Facebook doesn't arise out of a lack of the word "social" in Metafilter's tagline, but in how it approaches the relationship between its users. Forums are undeniably social, but they still focus on the main discussion. A forum like Metafilter has a main topic for each discussion, and then doesn't really care who participates in the discussion. There can be a regular turnover of users, and the site would probably still sustain itself.

Facebook belongs to a series of Social Networking Sites that treats its users, rather than its content, as the main asset. There is no topic, other than its users. People visit Facebook for the express purpose of seeing what their friends/family/coworkers have been up to. The interactions are people specific - if I talk to my friend, she's damn well going to care who sees the discussion, and who I am. The main point of contention here is the "networking" aspect, rather than the "social" aspect. I might be sad if some MeFites I know well left the site, but that wouldn't stop me from reading MetaFilter. If my friends leave Facebook, it ceases to be useful to me, because my personal network is now gone.

I'm not sure how much of this makes sense - I've rewritten the post several times over the course of thirty minutes, and I still don't think I've adequately answered your question.
posted by Phire at 12:57 PM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


I guess I'm just confused about what the precise distinction between some of these sites would be. I haven't given the matter a lot of deep thought, but I suspect that someone attracted to this thread may have.

I'm one of those people who think about this a a lot, and in fact teach about it. The problem, and I think it's reflected in why Phire admits to having trouble articulating the difference, is that are are no *precise* distinctions.

If you look at the research about social uses of the internet written in the mid-late 90s, you will see a lot of talk about "online communities" (which is where I would classify MetaFilter as it is now, though maybe it didn't start out with that goal/intention). Online communities were/are generally organized around common interests, particularly ones that were more niche. So maybe you really like that obscure band from the 1970s that had one hit and lots of underground work, but nobody in your immediate social circle is a fan. So you go to the internet and voilà, you've found tons of people from around the globe who share your interests.

Online communities were/are inherently social, but often you didn't go there with the express interest in making friends, or keeping track of old friends, but rather to talk about a shared interest. The research community had a pretty good idea about what an online community was before sites like MySpace and Facebook cropped up and brought with them the term "social networking site."

Social networking happens in a lot (most?) places on the internet, including online communities, and in fact some researchers have applied the SNS label to any site that allows people to articulate a list of contacts (i.e. I've read plenty of papers where people describe YouTube as a SNS).

Here is a recent definition: "web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system." source

Personally, I think extending the term SNS to any site with contacts makes the term so loose that it's not really useful, so I prefer to use SNS to describe only those sites whose *primary* purpose is the articulation and tracking of social networks, irrespective of other content. Sites that include a social networking component but whose primary purpose is something else (discussing the "best of the web") deserve to be described accordingly.

I can make use of MetaFilter just fine without any contacts or ever talking to anybody, but there's not point in using Facebook if I have no Facebook friends.

damn, this is probably the longest comment I've ever written on mefi! sorry!
posted by DiscourseMarker at 1:50 PM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


thinking of something pithy in responses
posted by infini at 2:20 PM on December 8, 2008


Phire and DiscourseMarker, thanks for your thoughtful replies; you've both given good definitions of "social network sites". That definition which involves constructing a profile and allowing users to link or connect to it from within the system is more or less the definition given in the article, and the phrase "there is no topic, other than its users" does a lot to distinguish something like Facebook from something like Metafilter. (And infini, "thinking of something pithy in responses" could almost be a definition of Metafilter in particular, I suppose).

I was almost willing to chuck the idea of a precise definition entirely and just focus on the appearance of the site, since to some degree the appearance would reflect the content. I like this quote from the article:
Facebook pages have the clean lines of a modernized college dorm; MySpace pages are often hideous but self-expressive like a sticker-laden high-school locker.
Metafilter allows essentially no customization of one's comments (not even images) and only minimal customization of one's profile, so it's clear from its appearance that the only thing that matters is the content of the posts and comments. I suppose Metafilter could be compared to the harsh sterile look of a hospital operating room, though personally I prefer to think of it as a cozy book-laden bar full of curious conversation.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:40 PM on December 8, 2008 [3 favorites]


hm. and here I was hoping I'd sneak in and lurk under the radar
posted by infini at 2:50 PM on December 8, 2008


It would be unnerving for most people I think.

I think that's exactly the problem. People have conflated what is comfortable or what they like or don't like with "privacy rights." Someone can stare at you as long as they like and there is no constitutional law that can address it. Unbeknownst to you, some guy can sit there observing you without your notice, taking notes, even surreptitious photographs, and there ain't nothing you can do about it. They can do it for fun, if they want.

To deny the government the ability to surveil a place remotely just ensures that they'll have less ability to enforce the law with a given amount of funding. As for recording, well, we expect witnesses to crimes to "record" the event (e.g., all those folks without cameras standing around seeing whatever it is that you don't want seen), the only difference being that the recording is faulty and subject to harassment on the witness stand, allowing justice to depend on a fairly unreliable testimony.

I really don't see the problem beyond some people don't like it. I don't like it when people pick their nose in public, but I don't think a law prohibiting it should be passed.
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:33 PM on December 8, 2008


"To deny the government the ability to surveil a place remotely just ensures that they'll have less ability to enforce the law with a given amount of funding."

And I assume by enforce you mean punish, as cameras do nothing to actually prevent crime in the first place.

In the extended metaphor, panopticon surveillance sense, FB is potentially very creepy indeed. The difference is one choses to participate in FB. No matter how stupid a thing you post, that difference is crucial.
posted by digitalprimate at 4:40 PM on December 8, 2008


Online privacy and specifically facebook is the only thing that my girlfriend and I have ever argued about. She abhors having an online presence and goes to great length to avoid it. I've been building one, more or less associated with my real name, for over a decade. Some of my accumulated online profile is intentional, some of it isn't. It doesn't bother me as my concept of privacy is, I guess, slightly different from a lot of people.

Your parents named you slimepuppy?
posted by Chuffy at 5:00 PM on December 8, 2008


There's also the whole being recorded aspect, and the fact that if you have a vast CCTV network like Britain, you can be tracked all over town.

I can see where people get this idea that Britain has a vast CCTV network, but it actually isn't true. At most, law enforcement might have traffic cameras on the main entry roads in and out of town, and a couple of clusters in the city centre. The vast network that people refer to is actually mostly privately owned and operated cameras that police can request access to if a particularly nasty crime takes place, although mostly they don't bother.

The town centre in the small borough where I live has just two or three cameras on stalks. Last christmas, robbers drove into town in a stolen jcb. They used the bucket to smash two of the cameras, and then used it to dig an ATM out of the wall of the bank and drop it into another vehicle, which they then drove away.

Said robbers remain unapprehended. If we had this fabulous CCTV network that could track everyone all over town, they'd have caught these guys. JCB's don't travel fast at all, and as soon as somebody noticed the two cameras going down, they would have had someone sent out immediately to see what's going on. The nearest police station is less than a mile away.

And I assume by enforce you mean punish, as cameras do nothing to actually prevent crime in the first place.

If you've been apprehended by a camera, and sent to prison, it's extremely difficult to commit additional crimes in the community. That's a form of prevention.

You can't have it all ways. Either these things are effective at surveillance and assisting arrests, or they're not. If they aren't, then why would you even be worried about them? If they are, then there's obviously some benefits in the increased apprehension of offenders.

I cant think of anywhere in the UK where surveillance is more intense than Las Vegas though. Personally, I'd be much more concerned about intrusions into my privacy by the private security firms that run security for the Vegas casinos than I would be by the British state. We've got rather more checks and balances over what those recordings can be used for, and we've got a freedom of information act that can force the government to turn over each and every recording of us that's on record. There are no such checks on the private security industry. Yet every year, millions of Americans voluntarily submit to those levels of surveillance, presumably because they either think they derive some benefits from it, or they don't care enough about the problems that it poses to give a shit about it one way or the other.

People in the UK are no different.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:04 PM on December 8, 2008


Either these things are effective at surveillance and assisting arrests, or they're not. If they aren't, then why would you even be worried about them? If they are, then there's obviously some benefits in the increased apprehension of offenders.

First, they aren't.

Second, do you leave the bathroom stall open when you take a dump at work? You're doing nothing wrong, why should you be worried if someone sees you? There is a clear difference between privacy and secrecy, as has been noted here too many times to cite.

Third, you might want to consider a more rational approach to the "apprehension of offenders" given the present state of both the UK and US prison system, especially regarding the creation of repeat offenders.
posted by digitalprimate at 5:24 PM on December 8, 2008


I bet this guy is dying that the Jon Favreau/Clinton cutout thing didn't break just a leeetle sooner.

Hah.
posted by delmoi at 10:14 PM on December 9, 2008


Second, do you leave the bathroom stall open when you take a dump at work? You're doing nothing wrong, why should you be worried if someone sees you? There is a clear difference between privacy and secrecy, as has been noted here too many times to cite.

Um, what?
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:59 PM on December 10, 2008


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