Experience has taught me that most humans like to talk about themselves, and, in the digital age, we all seem to have a guaranteed audience. If you can’t find anybody to listen to your stories in person, you can broadcast them over the internet for any friend, relative, coworker, stalker, or total stranger to enjoy. Thus the emergence of LiveJournal, MySpace (now My____), Facebook, Twitter, Gmail Buzz, Digg, and a plethora of other sites that allow us to feel connected to the world from the privacy of our own homes. Through these sites, we can share our intimate details of emotional turmoil and real-time updates about our most mundane actions (and, if you’re Jessica Simpson, you can demonstrate your affinity for clean ears).

Of course, with all of these social networking sights, there is the risk of overshare. One wrong click could make a journal entry that was supposed to be “private” readable to all the world, and a lapse in judgment could result in you complaining about your boss in your Facebook status update when, in fact, your boss is a Facebook friend. My high school teachers were quick to remind us that we should be very careful about what we posted online, as we might have viewers outside of our intended audience. They held up one of my peers as a prime example. A recently graduated student had tried to get a job in the school’s Computer Lab during his gap year before college, but he had made the mistake of alluding to his affinity for marijuana on his MySpace profile. In addition to refusing to hire him, they saw fit to share his faux pas with the entire faculty, student body, and association of parents as a cautionary tale.

I felt: Lesson learned. No open profile. No stupid photos. No exposing my personal information to school officials, potential employers, or strangers. I had assumed that, if I was careful, I could maintain my privacy. Of course, there was the issue of a friend writing something unsavory on my wall or tagging me in a photo I wasn’t proud of, but there are means of protecting yourself against that. As the author of  “10 Privacy Settings Every Facebook User Should Know” suggests, you can protect your privacy by monitoring your friend list, removing yourself from Facebook result searches, removing yourself from Google, avoiding the infamous video/tag mistake, protecting your albums, preventing stories from showing up in your friends news feeds, protecting against published application stories, making your contact information private, avoiding embarrassing wall posts, and keeping your friendships private. If I did all of this, my profile might look a little boring, but I should have absolute privacy, right? Wrong.

Even Facebook users with the most strict security settings do not really have “protected” profiles. According to Wall Street Journal investigators, Facebook “apps” have been transmitting identifying information such as Facebook user IDs and names to external companies to use them for marketing purposes, regardless of whether the user has tried to make his/her information private. For some users with less strict privacy settings, their age, occupation, residence, and/or photos might be released to these advertising and data firms which could then attach them to “dossiers” they had already compiled on the user’s personal information and internet-activity history. When the WSJ conducted its investigation in the fall of 2010, each one of Facebook’s ten most popular apps (FarmVille included) was guilty of transmitting user IDs, contributing to a breach of privacy for tens of millions of Facebook users.

Facebook officials indicated that their company was opposed to such information sharing (evidently it is against its privacy policy for apps to user information to these external companies), and they promised that Facebook was working on limiting user’s exposure. Several “guilty” apps were disabled, but, how can Facebook monitor the activities of all 550,000 apps? What incentive do they have to bother?

After coming under a lot of scrutiny for its privacy policy (which most users could not even understand because of its length, density, and language), Facebook unveiled its plan for a new format, which should make the policy more readable and understandable. Facebook disseminated a graphic to demonstrate how the new format, characterized by “simplified explanation” and “interactive tools,” will help users understand the way their information is being used:

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a nice gesture… but the privacy policy itself will remain completely unchanged, so personal information can still be used to target advertisements and “Sponsored Stories” about us can be used to advertise products to our friends. For a lot of people, this gesture is simply not enough.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols argues that our personal information and privacy is too high a price to pay for just “free web-hosting and some PHP doodads.” He believes that the Facebook’s Panopticonic system developed out of the centralized server/client architecture that pervades today, and he suggests that our freedom can be obtained through decentralization, through the use of small, inexpensive plug servers, dubbed Freedom Boxes. According to the Debian wiki, “We live in a world where the use of the network is mediated by organizations that often do not have our best interests at heart. By building software that does not rely on central service, we can regain control and privacy. By keeping data in our homes, we gain legal protection over it. By giving back power to the users over their networks and machines, we are returning the internet to its intended peer to peer architecture.” Freedom Boxes will offer data encryption and security, and it will allow Internet users to enjoy “safe” social networking through “privacy-respecting” services such as Diaspora, Appleseed, and Lorea.

Sounds very interesting, but I’m curious about how successful these new sites will turn out to be. The centralization of Facebook’s system might give it too much power, but it is a power that will be difficult to overthrow. Facebook has become not just a social network but THE social authority; as Hortsense Smith for Jezebel notes, “it often seems like its somewhat required to have a Facebook profile just to appear to have a presence on Earth.” If you’re not on Facebook, how will you get this invitation or hear about that piece of news (gossip)? How will the person you met at the dinner on Friday track you down to see you again? How will you announce to the world that you’ve just finished reading Twilight and the ending made you cry? While ceding control over one’s personal information is certainly a cost, it seems to be one that many millions of people are willing to pay for the convenience and size of the network. Seeing as so many of the people that join networking sites join them to have 1) an audience to perform to and 2) a constant source of entertainment as they watch other people’s performances, how could they walk away from so vast an audience and so great a spectacle?

I anticipate that Diaspora and similar “secure” social networking sites will become very popular within certain circles (most likely among computer-savvy users that already know P2P, appreciate open-source software, and understand how seed systems work), but I think they will remain niche. Most of us (many computer-illiterate) will just stay on Facebook and grumble about privacy breaches through status updates, wall posts, and Facebook groups.

 

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