Facebook Changes Cause Rift in Flow of Personal Information

Slashdot reports that Facebook, the college student networking site, launched changes to their web site this morning, provoking a massive and immediate response, and not the one the company had hoped for. Hundreds of protest ‘Groups’ formed, the largest of which have over 10,000 members, and sites like this student portal sprung up to pour scorn on the recent changes. The biggest gripe is the new “News Feed” on every page that tracks recent changes, activities, and comments made by everyone the user is connected to, such as a change in a user’s relationship status.” These details were all public previously, but it was only through intentional browsing that they would be discovered. In the words of one user, “Stalking is supposed to be hard.”

Facebook has responded on their blog, defending their changes and claiming nothing has really changed in terms of user privacy:

We didn’t take away any privacy options. [Your privacy options remain the same.] The privacy rules haven’t changed. None of your information is visible to anyone who couldn’t see it before the changes. If you turned off your wall to non-friends, no one who is not your friend will be able to see a post on your wall. Your friends can still see it; it hasn’t changed. Secret groups and secret events remain secret from other people. Pokes and messages remain as private interactions. Nothing you do is being broadcast; rather, it is being shared with people who care about what you do—your friends.

What Facebook is ignoring is how their changes impacted the norms of personal information flows – that the contextual integrity of the flow of information within Facebook was disrupted, and that’s what users are reacting to. As one Slashdot commenter puts it:

Let’s say I break up with my girlfriend. Previously, I would simply change my relationship status to “single.” Eventually, my closer friends would notice that my relationship status changed.Now, it is announced to the world as soon as it would happen. There’s a difference between publicly available and publicly announced. As an analogy: the former is adding a line in your slashdot personal profile that you had a divorce. The latter is having a story greenlighted on slashdot, that you just had a divorce. Both are public information, but would you really want it announced?

Just because we choose to disclose something does not mean we wish to draw attention to it when the situation changes. Even something as innocuous as an invitation to a party shows up; if I decline the invitation, everyone knows I just declined.

By adding an RSS feed for all changes to a particular user’s profile, Facebook changed the way personal information flows within that context, and that does impact user privacy.


  1. I agree with you. Plenty of public records were available before the Internet, but it took time and energy to access them. Now, a Google search for a person’s name can deliver in seconds what might previously have taken hours to uncover. Changes like these in “information flow”, as you call it, have an enormous impact on privacy even if the data itself is the same.

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