May 102010
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By James Kwak

I recently deleted most of my personal information in my Facebook account. (I am keeping the Baseline Scenario page up for the convenience of people who want to read the blog within Facebook, and I need to have my personal account in order to manage that page.) This is only a tiny bit related to the fact that, for several days recently, Facebook was blocking access to this blog. It’s mainly because I’ve decided that the costs of Facebook outweigh the benefits.

First, take a look at this fantastic graphic by Matt McKeon (hat tip Tyler Cowen). You have to click on it to advance through time; it shows what information is, by default, available to whom, and how that has changed over time. (Click on the link to the “image-based version” if you’re having trouble.) Then come back here.

In short, there has been a massive, one-directional shift in how much of your information is visible by default either to everyone on Facebook, or to everyone on the Internet. Now, the usual defense of Facebook is that this is only by default; you can control information access via your privacy settings, which have gotten more fine-grained over time.

But this argument doesn’t fly for me. First of all, there is the problem that many people don’t realize they have this control and don’t use it. Second, finding and using those privacy settings is not trivial. But for years, I figured that I was savvy and careful enough to protect myself adequately. I’m not that paranoid about personal information on the Internet to begin with–there are various versions of my biography already floating around–and besides, I worked in the software industry for eight years (some of that time helping to design and configure software, not just market and sell it), so I should be able to figure this stuff out.

But I can’t, at least not in the amount of time I’m willing to dedicate to the problem. Recently, Facebook made yet another structural change. Before, information about where you used to go to school or work was simple text fields in your profile. (I’m not talking about networks here; I’m talking about the “education and work” section of your profile.) Then Facebook switched it so that each prior school or job became an active link to a new “community page.” (There’s no option to have a simple text field anymore.) These community pages appeared to aggregate posts (formerly status messages) made by community page members that were “related” to the topic of the community — meaning that the name of the community (e.g., “Yale Law School”) appeared in the text of the post. I could see lots of posts by people I have no apparent relationship to. I checked the privacy settings, and there was no new switch for community pages, so I couldn’t tell how the filtering was working. Maybe I was only seeing posts from people who let me see them by virtue of being in the same network (or people who let all of Facebook see their information), but I’m not sure. And nowhere does Facebook clearly explain how their privacy filtering works.

Read more . . .

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