When we first join social networking sites such as Facebook, we enthusiastically create our profile, pouring personal data into fields, checkboxes and personal pages. We join “networks”, add “applications”, play “quizzes” and upload photos. What we may not realise is that with every click, every upload and every game/quiz interaction, we are contributing to a rich underlying “social graph” that maps our profiles – our likes, interests, locations and preferences. The most amazing thing is that we do this voluntarily.

If a telemarketer was to call you and ask you for these details, would you so readily hand them over?

Facebook’s Open Graph

Over the last couple of weeks there has been plenty of discussion around Facebook and the changes that they have made to the privacy settings. To me it felt like Facebook was Pulling a Swifty. The new Open Graph API clearly changes the game – by exposing your underlying data to affiliated websites who can then use this information to provide targeted information, goods, services (read advertising) straight into your browser/mobile device.

Some have proposed an exodus from Facebook on May 31. Matt Milan and Joseph Dee’s Quit Facebook Day is a rallying point for those who are not only disgruntled with Facebook’s lack of concern about user data/privacy, but are willing to act on it. As they say:

For us it comes down to two things: fair choices and best intentions. In our view, Facebook doesn't do a good job in either department. Facebook gives you choices about how to manage your data, but they aren't fair choices, and while the onus is on the individual to manage these choices, Facebook makes it damn difficult for the average user to understand or manage this. We also don't think Facebook has much respect for you or your data, especially in the context of the future.

Being a Digital Citizen and Diaspora

For me, this is the important point. Whether we like it or not, we are now “digital citizens”. We are active, engaged participants online – but citizenry has rights and obligations. The vast majority of us are not comfortable working through the 17 steps to improving our Facebook privacy. It’s complicated. But just because it is complicated and/or confusing, doesn’t mean that we choose to opt-in.

Danah Boyd in Facebook and Radical Transparency eloquently sums up the challenge and the frustration:

The key to addressing this problem is not to say “public or private?” but to ask how we can make certain people are 1) informed; 2) have the right to chose; and 3) are consenting without being deceived …

What pisses me off the most are the numbers of people who feel trapped. Not because they don’t have another choice. (Technically, they do.) But because they feel like they don’t. They have invested time, energy, resources, into building Facebook what it is. They don’t trust the service, are concerned about it, and are just hoping the problems will go away. It pains me how many people are living like ostriches. If we don’t look, it doesn’t exist, right?? This isn’t good for society.

A group of developers have seized on this opportunity to rethink community, personal data and ownership – and have announced their intention to create a privacy aware, personally controlled, distributed, open source social network. Called Diaspora, it promises much. Within days, the team have been able to use the Kickstarter website to raise over 1700% of their required project budget from more than 5000 individual sponsors.

Reclaim Your Privacy

But what EXACTLY is this data and what does it look like? Just check out the way Facebook handles “social advertising” – where YOUR photos and name can appear in advertisements targeting your friends. Have you adjusted the setting to say No one?

ReclaimPrivacy.org have created a neat button that will show you more precisely the data that you have open. Simply drag their Scan for Privacy button to the toolbar on your browser, login to Facebook and click the button.

reclaimprivacy

As you can see, I have a few settings myself that I need to change. In fact, I am going a step further – removing a whole range of personal data, photos, information and so on.

I am considering establishing a new, isolated personal account with links to a dedicated email address. I would use this to manage the pages that I am responsible for – but little else.

A Flash in the Pan?

You may ask yourself – so what. You may feel that there is a fair exchange between you and Facebook – that you get value and give away little. If so, then you are clearly one of the digital citizens who are operating with a greater level of knowledge.

But is this a flash in the pan? Will this small pocket of resistance dissipate?

The volatile nature of social networks means that businesses – large and small – can no longer put their head in the sand. A small issue can be amplified by even a handful of activists. Sure, there may only be a few thousand people indicating that they will be deleting their Facebook account … but how many millions are these people connected to? What is the network of their social graph? What is the potential impact of a wave forming and breaking over the Facebook wall?

Clearly Facebook head of public policy, Tim Saparani, realises where this may go. This article in Wired, announcing that Facebook is to launch simplistic privacy choices soon, signals some level of awareness.

The proposed changes are unlikely to reverse the company’s December decision to make large portions of a user’s profile into “publicly available information” — which means even if you hide the fact you support a gun rights organization in your profile settings, that’s still findable online.

Will it stop the exodus? Has it impacted our sense of trust in Facebook? And what does it mean for brands who are edging ever deeper into Facebook as a social engagement platform? Is this strategy putting brand investment at risk?

At this point it comes down to personal preference and personal awareness. Which way will you be leaning?