No sooner had the ink dried on my last column — about the new Dave Eggers novel “The Circle,” in which he imagines a world without privacy — than Facebook announced two changes to its privacy settings. In its short nine-year existence, Facebook has made many changes to its privacy policies, of course. More often than not, the changes have enabled the company to monetize the rich trove of data it collects from its users. When you get right down to it, that’s really all it has to sell.
As these things go, these particular changes were less than earth-shattering: The first would make everyone’s news feed searchable; the second would allow teenagers to share their latest thoughts or videos not just with their “friends,” or their “friends of friends,” but with anyone who uses Facebook. Previously, under-18 users of Facebook were restricted to sending posts to “friends of friends” — a category that, admittedly, can run into the thousands for many teenagers.
Still, it felt as though Facebook was making at least some small effort to establish boundaries beyond which teens couldn’t go: a zone of safety to protect them from predators and bullies. Now, it seemed, all bets were off. (In fairness, I should note that the default setting for teenagers is “friends,” which is restrictive, and that users under 18 have to change their setting to be able to share information publicly.)
Whenever Facebook makes a change like this, it is always accompanied by some highfalutin rationale. Sure enough, the company says that the move will amplify the voices of young activists and idealists.
Well, I suppose. What the move clearly exemplifies, though, is the steady erosion of privacy online — and not just on Facebook. In some ways, Facebook is playing catch-up.
It’s important to remember that Facebook didn’t start life with an obvious business model. Begun as a way for university students to share information with others on the same campus — and no one else — it came to realize that advertising was its ticket and that advertisers wanted to be able to market to a large universe of people who were sharing information. The more they divulged about their likes and dislikes, the richer the data they provided.
Thus, as early as 2007, Facebook set up a program, called Beacon, that made it possible to advertise to a user’s “friends” based on their purchases at other sites. It resulted in a class-action lawsuit that has been settled. Facebook has since shut down Beacon. In 2009, it got in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission because it weakened its users’ privacy settings without telling them. In 2010, it started a program called Open Graph, which gave marketers a wealth of information about a Facebook user’s preferences. Most recently, the company has developed a program that turns its users’ information into product endorsements that are displayed to their “friends.” Such ads are far more powerful than an obvious corporate ad because the “friends” trust the user.
Meanwhile, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has always had a philosophical bent toward “openness” and “sharing” — which meshed nicely with his company’s advertising focus. Emily Bazelon, a Slate columnist, found a radio interview in which Zuckerberg said, “We help you share information, and when you do that, you’re more engaged on the site, and then there are ads on the side of the page.” He added, “The model all just works out.”
“I think Facebook’s whole business model is habituating people to sharing all their information,” Bazelon told me.
There’s one other factor: There are plenty of popular sites today where there is no privacy at all. On Twitter, for the most part, every tweet is available for anybody to see. Plenty of teenagers have gravitated to Twitter. When I spoke to Facebook executives, I got the sense that they felt they had been backed into a corner and had no choice but to open their site further so that teenagers could post publicly on Facebook. Why should Facebook be punished commercially by caring about privacy if competitors didn’t — and the users didn’t seem to care?
As for advertising, plainly the more time people spend on Facebook, the more likely advertisers will stick with the company, instead of gravitating to Twitter. Allowing teenagers to post publicly might well have the effect of keeping them in Facebook’s orbit. The company acknowledges it wants more public content, especially about popular subjects like television shows or movies. Advertisers will continue to target teens with those ads on the side of the page, just as they always have.
But what they won’t do, Facebook executives insist, is use teens’ own words and images to create ads, the way they can do now with adults. They say this with considerable vehemence, as if they are offended by the very notion.
Given their history, however, the obvious retort is: Give ’em time.
Joe Nocera is a columnist for The New York Times.
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