Friday, December 11, 2009

I also want my driveway to only be visible to my friends

Facebook recently changed its privacy settings. I was never all that interested in privacy settings, which give me about a dozen different ways to control who can see what university I went to and that I'm a fan of Stevie Wonder. A lot of people do care, however. To them it's a matter of principle: they should be able to control who knows that among their interests are "good times with friends" and that they graduated from West Central High School in 1994. Other people have simply no interest in sharing that much information about themselves, so they tend not to use Facebook.

This reaction from what is otherwise a parenting blog is breathtaking. Facebook's update makes all profile pictures visible, as well as who your friends are. The author, who for some reason chose to use a picture of his child on his profile picture, is convinced that this a concession to pedophiles.

He writes "if you have a cute picture of your son or daughter as your profile pic, every pedophile and creep can now see it, whether you like it or not." This is true, admittedly, if what pedophiles and creeps do for fun is type in the names of people at random to see if there's a picture of a child that comes up. Maybe they do and then this is a problem, but public profile pictures are also a way of making sure that you're adding the right person. The same goes for a friends list which, if it shows a large number of people in Waco, Texas, can let you know that you haven't found your picture-less friend in Dubai.

People who don't want this ease of friends are people that don't want to be found. There's something comical about Facebook friendship. Back when you could find ten random people from any network, I made a social experiment of making friends with people in Toronto, Kansas. All of them accepted my requests. I've also accepted friend requests from friends of people that are barely friends who must really find me interesting. That's one absurd extreme of it.

At the other extreme are people like Chad Skelton, who want "a safe, private place where you can share your photos, videos and inner-most thoughts with just your friends and family and not the rest of the world". I don't know that sharing your innermost thoughts was ever the point of Facebook, but I don't understand why the level of paranoia that some people have about Facebook and the Internet as a whole usually doesn't extend to the rest of the world.

For example, if Facebook took a picture of you everyday and shared it with all your friends or maybe your network, it would be an outrage. People would scream that Facebook is "sharing information about your age, race, gender, appearance and physical characteristics" (because synonyms add gravity) with unknown third parties. But this is exactly what you do when you leave the house. Strangers, some of them even foreigners or criminals, have access to this sensitive information. Everyone living within a kilometre radius of your house knows how nice it is, what kind of car you drive, whether you celebrate Christmas with decorations, and so on. These people tend to have memories. Co-workers from ten years ago and classmates from middle school also know a great deal about you.

Going about your daily life in, presumably, a community and likely a city is not something anyone thinks about. Of course, you wouldn't invite those strangers into your home to listen to a personal conversation, but the issue in Skelton's posts and in the dozens of paranoid comments that follow is access to things like profile pictures, friends lists and other mundane information. This information could conceivably be used for malicious purposes, but then, so could all the information you unwittingly release to others simply by existing.

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