March 06, 2010

Facebook & Theory of Mind, or Why I'm No Longer Updating Facebook

Facebook is a place where you can communicate with your friends, family members, co-workers, ex-flames, maybe even your boss if you choose to friend her. Theory of mind is our "...intuitive understanding of [our] own and other people's minds or mental states, including beliefs and thoughts." (from A Dictionary of Psychology, edited by Andrew M. Colman. Oxford University Press 2009); it explains how we know what other people know.

What does this have to do with Facebook? In the old days, before Facebook's recent privacy changes, if Conchita posted something on Darius' wall, here's who could read it:
  • Darius could read it, because Conchita posted it on Darius' wall
  • Conchita could read it, because Conchita posted it on Darius' wall
  • Their mutual friends Albert and Brigadoon could read it, because
  1. they were alerted when one friend wrote on another friend's wall
  2. Albert and Brigadoon have access to Darius' wall because they are friends with him.
The above is still true. Here's what used to be true that is no longer true:
  • Conchita's friend Ephesus, who doesn't know Darius from Adama, previously could not see that she posted on Darius' wall. Additionally, Conchita's, family, co-workers, and other Facebook-defined friends who were not friends with Darius did not know about and therefore could not read that post. We all had a pretty clear notion of who would have access to that, and some measure of privacy WITHIN OUR FACEBOOK CONTACTS.
  • Now, Ephesus and all of Conchita's other Facebook "friends" know when she writes on ALL OF HER FRIEND'S walls, regardless of whether they know Conchita's friends or not. They also know when she comments on a photograph or a note or anything shared by ANY OF HER FRIENDS. If Conchita's not careful, they can even READ all of Conchita's comments to all of her friends.
As far as I can tell, there is no changing this setting. It is possible to hide some, most, or all of yourself from the World Wide Web, and from people who don't know you from Adama, but it is not possible to hide who you interact with on Facebook to the rest of your, and their, Facebook contacts.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation concurs: "These new 'privacy' changes are clearly intended to push Facebook users to publicly share even more information than before. Even worse, the changes will actually reduce the amount of control that users have over some of their personal data." Further, a story in this week's Inside Higher Ed reports that "A small change to the settings for Gadsden’s [an East Stroudsburg University sociology professor] online profile allowed the 'friends' of Gadsden’s own 'friends' to read her updates, and in so doing created a controversy that the professor now feels could damage her career and her chances at tenure."

This major change to Facebook's privacy policy has rattled me; and although I'd long ago stopped posting anything personal, it has silenced my Facebook updates.

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