REPORT: Facebook and the New Age of Privacy

It’s said that opposites attract. However, in social media, it’s quite the opposite. The idea of privacy and publicity are in fact at odds with one another. And at the heart of the matter, one social network is caught in the crossfire of sharing information and TMI (too much information). The line that separates privacy and openness remains undefined as it continues to shift as individuals learn important life lessons about the benefits and risks of living in public.

As we evolve into a more open society, the economic value of privacy has inverted. Years ago it was inexpensive to maintain a sense of controlled solitude and expensive to earn public attention. Now the cost of publicness is far lower than the expense of cultivating privacy.

The state of privacy online, or perceived lack thereof, is consuming media headlines and status updates worldwide and webwide. But what might appear to represent the sentiment of the people, may also in fact, represent media sensationalism. As you’ll see, conversations on Twitter regarding privacy fueled discourse and debate as well as awareness of the issue. At the heart of the privacy debate is Facebook and its ongoing series of changes to its privacy policy. This latest PeopleBrowsr report examines the extent of Facebook privacy story between Facebook’s F8 conference in April 2010 and now.

The Privacy Woes of Facebook

Over the years, and at the behest of mainstream and new media, Facebook seemingly monopolized all conversations related to privacy concerns. In 2007, Facebook introduced Beacon, an ad system that provided third-party websites with a script that fed the activity of users back into Facebook feeds. After a very public backlash and a class action lawsuit, Facebook changed its stance.

In December 2009, Facebook introduced a privacy overhaul that was met with immediate criticism. After a series of very public complaints, privacy rules were overhauled once again, this time with the input of its users. The examples continue and date back several years.

However, on April 21st 2010 as the world watched, Facebook introduced us to its Open Graph at its F8 developer event in San Francisco. The announcement was met with cheers and jeers, but what was clear, Facebook and its leader Mark Zuckerberg, were leading us into a new, more public and open Web and way of life. Essentially, we were moving beyond the point of no return.

The Open Graph is nothing short of a game changer, serving as a new platform that turns the 500 million user strong social network into a personalization engine and a fledging contextual network that connects relevant information, content and people. And now with the universality of “Likes” inside Facebook and around the Web, your Facebook persona and social graph becomes portable. The price? Your privacy is traded for openness. The benefits? A living searchable Web that’s personalized to you and your contacts and those topics that interest you.

By placing the power of “Likes” within clicking distance, users can literally set the foundation for the content and people to which they’re introduced in Facebook and at partner sites. Hyperlinks are becoming peoplelinks.

For those who were reluctant to say “ah” to the opening of the social graph, they were forced to manually dam the rivers that carried personal information into the social stream. Users deemed it too difficult to do so, and as such, Facebook simplified the process for erecting walls between you, your activity and relationships, and the rest of the Web. But, because Facebook puts its users in control of privacy, what they see and what they share is wholly defined by their user settings. The more open the preferences the more friends within the social graph see and learn about you. Additionally, it’s how Facebook and Facebook’s outside partners personalize your experience. However, you are in control of the impressions that others form as well as the level of customized information and content you see in Facebook and outside apps and networks.

Searching Public Conversations to Research Privacy

There’s an aura of irony here in researching online privacy and using a very open information network to analyze public conversations. While the content studied here is based on subject matter and not tied to individuals per se, one can expect that public profiling in social networks will soon soar. In many ways, we are already seeing the results of personalized marketing and advertising and the improvement of products and services based on the choice words and sentiments shared by like-minded groups and influential individuals online.

Twitter is a unique beast when it comes to social media. It is a network that’s not only open, but indexed by the search engines and open to APIs. Your profile, updates, and your social graph or as Twitter refers to it, your “interest graph,” is open for analysis and perception freely or for the price of admission set forth by third-party developers who house this data. Twitter COO Dick Costolo once stated that Twitter avoided privacy concerns and discussions as people registered for the service with a full understanding that their conversations took place in a very public and visible forum. While true, I’d argue that as individuals take to social media to broadcast their observations and experiences, they are learning the true meaning of privacy and going public as they go.

Judging by the numbers, Costolo is indeed right. Twitter users aim their attention at Facebook when discussing privacy and not Twitter.

Privacy by the Numbers

Working with PeopleBrowsr, we studied the number of Tweets that flew across Twitter referencing privacy or related keywords dating back just prior to the now infamous F8 conference.

Prior to the event on April 24th, privacy Tweets hovered between 1,000 to 3,000 references per day mostly in anticipation of the much-rumored changes to Facebook’s public policy. On the day of F8, privacy emerged as a focal point of many online comments, cries, and reactions, spiking to almost 9,000 in a single day.

As the event itself drew to a close, privacy discussions raged on, but at varying levels. On April 25th, privacy-related Tweets fell sharply to 3,500 only to surge the very next day to just under 7,500 when politicians joined the fray. Four senators sent a letter to Facebook demanding that the company refrain from “opting in” users to new information-sharing features and to provide easier ways to control what information is shared and to whom. Congressman Rick Boucher, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet led the draft of a new privacy bill to find a balance between privacy protection and the ability for online companies to introduce targeted advertising based on behavior and public information shared in the network.

As a result of government intervention, privacy-related Tweets escalated once again toward 9,000.

What’s clear, going back to the day when privacy took center stage, the media sensationalized the topic, but consumers, at least those on Twitter, did not flood the streets with 140 character picket signs. 9,000 tweets do not seem to account for the millions of Twitter users or the 500,000 million people who have Facebook accounts.

But around May 25th, we saw privacy discussions hit the ceiling, at least in this particular study, with over 20,000 unique discussions. Many individuals organized online protests, boycotts, exits, and privacy lobbies. For example, once such group in Facebook maintains a membership of over 2.2 million.

At the beginning of June, Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg held Mark Zuckerberg’s feet to the fire during the annual AllThingsD conference (D8).

Zuckerberg apologized for privacy gaffes and for questionable remarks he made as a teenager, early in Facebook’s rise. However, his stance was clear. He believes users want to share and experience a very public digital life and he will help them connect at varying comfort levels.

The Not-So-Private Privacy Conversation

In order to get a better look at how the conversations related to privacy were stacked, we focused on several specific keywords including Facebook, Open Graph, Zuckerberg, Google, #privacy, among others.

Facebook and Open Graph accounted for a majority of conversations taking place prior to F8 and through the beginning of May. With a high of 5,000 on April 22nd, 27th and again on May 5, Facebook dominated the landscape where mentions of “#privacy” hovered around 500 references per day and “my privacy” barely registering. On April 20th, Google was thrown into the mix with 3,500 appearances tied to privacy when 10 countries organized to send a public letter to Google to protect “our” privacy. Many news organizations publicized the news, which accounted for a majority of the tweets and retweets.

For the most part however, individual subjects hovered at or below 750 daily references.

Privacy vs. Facebook Privacy

The PeopleBrowsr team then focused on privacy related Tweets as compared to those that specifically referenced Facebook. On May 26th and 27th following Washington’s reactions, general conversations about privacy hit a high of just over 18,000 while those specific to Facebook topped out above 12,000. Over the coming days however, the subject of privacy would lose momentum. After dipping to 4,000 general privacy and 2,000 tied to Facebook, interest jumped again on June 2nd, hitting 8,000 and 4,500 respectively. By July 15, privacy tweets waned 4,000 (privacy in general) and 1,000 (Facebook + privacy), maintaining a delta of roughly 2,000 over the course of 45 days.

Following Zuckerberg’s appearance at D8, conversations about Facebook privacy on Twitter have idled.

The Media Sensation

Earlier in the report, we discussed the media’s role in fueling privacy discussions. As such, we decided to compare public “@” conversations against those clearly sharing links to stories regarding privacy and Facebook. As you can see, conversations follow the media, which one could argue, is true for most events. However, individuals carried the conversation forward, in many ways challenging the media’s coverage of privacy to express opinions, concerns, and points of resolution.

What’s clear however, individuals and the greater population of Twitter are not as concerned about privacy, the Open Graph, or privacy settings as the media would otherwise have you believe. But, when Facebook forces human connections and society into a more public spotlight, people and the power of the press will continue to push back. Without pushing back, we cannot push things forward collaboratively. The future of social networks, privacy, and publicness lay not in creation, but instead, co-creation. It is true, we are the last generations to know privacy as it was. Over time we predict this debate will evolve into a series of educational and productive forums and memes that explore the differences significant differences between public and publicness. The value in privacy will only escalate when compared to publicity. However, the value of publicness will also soar as individuals eventually learn how to shape their experiences and the impressions of others. While there are risks involved with living in public, there are also rewards for participation. What works against you also works for you.

To dive further into the real-time discussions on privacy, please visit the special Analytic.ly dashboard we created to help you stay connected to the privacy discussion as it unfolds.

Download the report…

Facebook and the New Age of Privacy

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ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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