As Social Network points out, Facebook became popular mainly because it was simple, clean, powerful, and above all, it was cool. Twelve years ago privacy wasn’t cool because it was ubiquitous — back then, before Facebook and Twitter came along, things were private by default because it required a lot of effort (and money) to share a piece of information with other people via the internet. As a recent article points out, “publishing is no longer a job or an industry — it’s a button“.
Now Facebook knows everything about you, and all of your information tends to be public even if you don’t want it to be. If you change your privacy settings, third party websites still often have access to a huge percentage of your data, and Facebook uses tracking scripts installed on numerous third party websites to track its users’ web activity (this data is used for targeted advertising). No matter what site you’re on, there is a decent chance Facebook is watching. Recently, Facebook was slammed with a $15 billion class action suit for breaking U.S. federal wire-tapping laws by continuing to track users when they visit other websites even after they have logged out of Facebook. Just last week it got out that Facebook has been scanning users’ Facebook chats for illegal activity, in some cases reporting said activity to U.S. law enforcement. While this technology has only been used so far to catch serious criminals such as murderers and sexual predators, one can imagine a future where they go after petty criminals for things like underage drinking, DUI, or even illegal torrenting/file-sharing. Even Facebook’s public stance on privacy seems pretty grim. In 2011, Facebook marketing director Randi Zuckerberg publicly stated that “anonymity on the Internet has to go away”, making it clear that the social networking giant is no friend of privacy or anonymous communication.
While privacy used to be taken for granted, it is now a rare and rapidly vanishing commodity. Even though it may have been “lame” during Mark Zuckerburg’s (brief) college years, privacy is the new “cool” precisely because it is so scarce. Yet, Facebook continues to employ this early 2000′s mentality of privacy = introversion = uncool. In reality, everyone wants (and expects) companies like Facebook to protect their privacy, and to do it in a way that is intuitive, cutting-edge, against the grain, and otherwise, cool, even if they could make more money or reach more users doing it the other way.
People don’t want to have to constantly override default privacy settings just to keep their information relatively private, or worry that their “sexting” session over Facebook chat is going to get reported to the police as a prelude to rape. Furthermore, people want and expect some venues, particularly online chat, to be completely private (e.g. not shared with law enforcement agencies). Secure and encrypted online chat software already exists, so Facebook is just being annoying/uncool by sifting through user chats and reporting people. In general, by making some elements of Facebook public, and some optionally private, Facebook creates a contract of trust with its users. Right now this trust is strong despite all the recent negative media attention Facebook has been getting. If, however, Facebook continues down its current path and tries to promote an internet where no one has any privacy and it is illegal to communicate anonymously, I suspect this trust will gradually erode, and Facebook’s user base will jump ship.
The ultimate question, though, is: will the scarcity of online privacy eventually make privacy so desirable, so “cool”, that Facebook will have to change its ways, or are users simply going to stop caring about privacy altogether?