FACEBOOK has a chief privacy officer, but I doubt that the position will exist 10 years from now. That’s not because Facebook is hell-bent on stripping away privacy protections, but because the popularity of Facebook and other social networking sites has promoted the sharing of all things personal, dissolving the line that separates the private from the public.
Facebook’s younger members — high school or college students, and recent graduates who came of age as Facebook got its start on campuses — appear comfortable with sharing just about anything. It’s the older members — those who could join only after it opened membership in 2006 to workplace networks, then to anyone — who are adjusting to a new value system that prizes self-expression over reticence.
Many over-30 graybeards have yet to sign up, so Facebook has a chance for astonishing growth. Each week, a million new members are added in the United States and five million globally; the 30-and-older group is its fastest-growing demographic.
Members are becoming more gregarious, too. In December, the average number of “friends” per member, worldwide, was 100. It has now jumped to 120, according to a company spokesman.
Among members, a Law of Amiable Inclusiveness seems to be revealing itself: over time, many are deciding that the easiest path is to routinely accept “friend requests,” completing a sequence begun when one member seeks to designate another as a Facebook friend.
In other words, they are defining “friend” simply as any Facebook member who communicates a wish to be one.
Facebook offers members a plentitude of privacy options. I count 43 settings that can be tweaked, not including a bunch for limiting information that can be seen by software applications installed by one’s Facebook friends.
Facebook’s default settings for new accounts protect users in some ways. For instance, the information in one’s profile is restricted to friends only; it is not accessible to friends of friends. But Facebook sets few restrictions by default on what third-party software can see in a network of friends. Members are not likely aware that unless they change the default privacy settings, an application installed by a friend can vacuum up and store many categories of a member’s personal information.
David E. Evans, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Virginia, says he wishes that Facebook would begin with more restrictions on the information that outside software developers can reach. For 15 of 19 information categories, Facebook sets a default setting of “share,” which means the information can be pulled out of Facebook and stored on servers outside its control. These 15 categories include activities, interests, photos and relationship status.
Facebook had removed “thousands” of applications that members deemed untrustworthy.
In Professor Evans’s view, however, banishment of malevolent software comes too late: “Once the application has got the data, it’s got it, stored on someone else’s machine.”
Asked how many members ever change a privacy setting, Mr. Kelly said 20 percent.
FACEBOOK does let members create customized subsets of friends. Members can selectively restrict access to some items, such as photo albums and videos. But customizing permissions for this or that, via multiple clicks, is no one’s idea of a good time.
For many members, “friends” now means a mish-mash of real friends, former friends, friends of friends, and non-friends; younger and older relatives; colleagues and, if cursed, a nosy boss or two. Everyone accepted as a “friend” gets the same access.