Private Networking


In light of the sudden ubiquity of Mark Zuckerberg, James O’Connor looks at whether social networking is changing society’s attitude towards privacy

With the hype surrounding new movie The Social Network, Facebook and its creator Mark Zuckerberg are being written about at length. Whether Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook or not, many seem to have forgotten the controversies surrounding his multi-billion dollar company’s approach to privacy.

Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have completely changed the way we interact with each other. Everyone from Barack Obama to George Hook has a Twitter account or a Facebook page where they can bombard their followers with endless information. Facebook, by its own accord, helps you connect and share with the people in your life – but at what cost?

Many view their profile as a statement of their identity, one that they can personalise and show to friends. But Facebook reinvents the word friend. I have hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, but after meeting each of them once or twice I may never again speak to many of them.

Third-year civil engineering student Jennifer Collins believes that “even though you are friends on Facebook, if you were to meet the majority of them in the street you wouldn’t have anything to talk about”, yet we call these acquaintances friends. By allowing so many people to be a Facebook friend, we are granting them access to personal information posted online. Content such as photos, videos, interests, comments and sexual orientation are made readily available for all to see.

Sit in any computer room across the campus and take note of the phenomenon that is Facebook “stalking”. People will sit and browse through photos and personal information of “friends” or others who have allowed, through their selection of privacy settings, their content to be viewed. Some of those being viewed could be complete strangers.

The general consensus is that even though we may not admit to it, we are all guilty of Facebook stalking at one time or another. Final-year politics student, Gráinne Quinn raised the point that “when you’re on Facebook, you tend to contact the same group of people all the time, which desensitises you to the fact that another 500 people can see your updates and photos.”

It is in the interest of privacy that one student recently deleted over 200 “friends”. Others choose to block particular people from viewing their content, with some users blocking older relatives and former lovers from viewing photos.

“Facebook’s privacy policy is 5,830 words long. While being extremely complex, it is also 1,287 words longer than the United States constitution”

Interestingly, most students said they felt that standards of privacy had not been worsened by the advent of Facebook. Ciaran Hendry, a Masters student in biomedical engineering, suggested that “if you want something to be private, you simply do not share it with the online world”. He continued: “If you are being stalked, you’ve let yourself be stalked. You are putting your life up on the internet and have the option of hiding whatever you don’t to be seen.”

Facebook users looking to make personal information private can expect a very lengthy process. To hide most information from the public eye, it is necessary to click through more than fifty privacy settings, each with a wide variety of options and even then, your profile is not entirely private. Some personal data is also being shared with third party websites. Facebook’s privacy policy is 5,830 words long. While being extremely complex, it is also 1,287 words longer than the United States constitution (excluding any of its amendments).

When asked if Facebook had reached a stage where socially it was too important to live without, students’ answers varied. Postgraduate psychology student, Louise Dolphin, felt this was true to a certain extent. “[Facebook] is connecting people who otherwise would not be in touch. It is capable of combining the services other sites such as Twitter, Flickr and YouTube provide, along with an instant messaging service.” Other students cited fear of social exclusion as a reason that they would not delete their Facebook.

If Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg is to be believed, privacy is dead. With regularly changing privacy settings, Zuckerberg argues that Facebook is simply adapting to a “social norm that has evolved over time”.

Instead, Facebook is a major agent of social change. People are changing the way they treat personal, private information. We readily give information online to a vast number of websites varying from home addresses to bank details. Moreover, it seems that others have no problem discussing personal and private matters loudly over the phone in public places such as on the bus. And so it seems, the Facebook privacy standards are now reaching new heights and unique places.