A Clarification

by on Jun.29, 2009, under general

Re-reading Marshall’s article, there is one clarification I want to make. After quoting me saying that Facebook information is decontextualized (as danah boyd has exhaustively noted), Marshall writes:

Perhaps no longer! The new Facebook publishing feature lets users share things with just a particular list of their friends. (Or with the public at large if they so choose.) The contexts are un-collapsed. Communication is human again. That’s a very big deal and is the kind of change that could make far more people comfortable sharing far more information about their lives on Facebook. It’s also a feature that no major competitor (namely Twitter) offers.

I share his hope, but I am not sure that the Publisher by itself reconstructs contexts. Certainly, it is a powerful tool with which one may take steps to rebuild the walls that separate social situations.

However, the tool itself doesn’t help much if it is to be exercised in an unhelpful environment. As I wrote on page 52 of my paper:

…[T]hese technical controls are employed within an environment lacking the architectural heuristics that inform privacy practices. The failure of Facebook technical controls is partially due to insufficient privacy settings and partially due to a deficient privacy architecture. The former failure has (rightly) received much attention while the latter has been largely neglected.

To understand the distinction, think about privacy in spoken communication. There are speech privacy practices, practices that respect norms of distribution and appropriateness. Changing volume is a privacy practice. Raising one’s voice implies that one means to be heard, while lowering one’s voice implies that one means to confide. This is a “technical control” on privacy in speech, and in the physical world it works just fine.

However, the privacy practice of changing volumes presupposes two things about the properties of the space in which one speaks. First, respecting norms of appropriateness requires visible audiences so that one may situate oneself. Second, respecting norms of distribution presumes that one can change the volume of one’s voice and can raise or lower volume to reach more or less people as desired. These properties are presumed because they are integral to the architecture of the physical world.

Of course, Facebook doesn’t afford these practices. Facebook provides people with powerful privacy tools but not an environment that privileges privacy. When a Facebook user uploads a photo album, in theory they can set access permissions to that album down to the level of individual Friends. That’s a privacy practice. It often fails, partially because it is difficult to set ex ante rules, but also because Facebook’s design withholds from users the environmental and social cues they rely on in the real world. In the physical world, when one is deciding whether to disclose a photo, one is aware of their social situation, who is looking on, and who is listening in. Facebook, though, doesn’t make this obvious at the point of upload or any time thereafter. Often users don’t realize which Friends can see which photos until after they’ve already left a comment.

Privacy practices cannot be analyzed apart from the environment wherein they occur [and] code that situates users, contextualizes information, and respects norms makes it easier for users to use the tools at their disposal.

In a nutshell, the Publisher is a step in the right direction. It’s a powerful tool. But Facebook has always had powerful tools. The real trick is to build a Facebook environment that is intuitively navigable when it comes to privacy practices. Facebook is full of smart people, and I trust they have some of them working on this, because that is the privacy revolution waiting to happen.

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