Few have been as vocal about Facebook's actions as Danah Boyd, a social media researcher at Microsoft Research New England. More generally, she has called for Web companies to take more responsibility for how they handle users' personal information. Technology Review's assistant editor, Erica Naone, recently talked with Boyd about how to think about Facebook's latest moves.
Technology Review: Why is it so hard to keep up with the way Facebook works?
Danah Boyd: People started out with a sense that this is just for you and people in your college. Since then, it's become just for you and all your friends. It slowly opened up and in the process people lost a lot of awareness of what was happening with their data. This is one of the things that frightens me. I started asking all of these nontechnological people about their Facebook privacy settings, and consistently found that their mental model of their privacy settings and what they saw in their data did not match.
TR: What's been driving these changes for Facebook?
DB: When you think about Facebook, the market has very specific incentives: Encourage people to be public, increase ad revenue. All sorts of other things will happen from there. The technology makes it very easy to make people be as visible and searchable as possible. Technology is very, very aligned with the market.
TR: Some people dismiss concerns about this sort of situation by saying that privacy is dead.
DB: Facebook is saying, "Ah, the social norms have changed. We don't have to pay attention to people's privacy concerns, that's just old fuddy-duddies." Part of that is strategic. Law follows social norms.
TR: What do you think is actually happening to the social norms?
DB: I think the social norms have not changed. I think they're being battered by the way the market forces are operating at this point. I think the market is pushing people in a direction that has huge consequences, especially for those who are marginalized.
TR: A lot of people wonder why it matters if companies share personal data. How are people affected by privacy violations?
DB: The easiest one to explain is the case of teachers. They have a role to play during the school day and there are times and places where they have lives that are not student-appropriate. Online, it becomes a different story. Facebook has now made it so that you can go and see everybody's friends regardless of how private your profile is. And the teachers are constantly struggling with the fact that, no matter how obsessively they've tried to make their profiles as private as possible, one of their friends can post a photo from when they were 16 and drinking or doing something else stupid, and all of a sudden, kids bring it into school. We want teachers to be able to have a teacher relationship to our kids that is different from what the teacher has to their intimates. Yet the technology puts the teacher constantly at risk.