Clippings: Facebook privacy: 'It's complicated'

<p>Are you on Facebook? </p><p>I am. So is my editor, John McCright; my eight-year-old cousin Maggie; my boyfriend’s lovely grandma (hi, Mary Jean!); and, according to our Facebook page, at least 189 fans of the <em>Addison Independent</em>. </p><p>Even if you’re not one of the 400 million active Facebook users who collectively spend 500 billion minutes on the website every month, chances are you know about the social media phenomenon. For the very few of you who don’t, it works like this: Facebook lets users set up personal profiles where they can connect with friends upload photos, share news stories, play inane games — you name it, and Facebook probably has an application that lets you do it. But what makes Facebook tick are the personal profiles that its users create, listing information about their favorite bands or books, their employment or education history, and their birthday and relationship status. In this day and age, information like this is currency — and Facebook is rolling in it.</p><p>But now the site is drawing increasing scorn for yet another wave of act-now, tell-later policy changes that chip away at users’ privacy. Facebook — the most visited website in the United States, according to Business Insider — has always taken a cavalier attitude toward users’ privacy. Now, if you’re not careful, the site will automatically make information about your location, friends, and employer public, and share details from your personal profile with outside sites when you visit places like Yelp or Pandora. Facebook users have to opt out of these changes, but the site’s privacy policy has grown increasingly convoluted.</p><p>Facebook, online pundits declared last week, has gone rogue. </p><p>Emboldened by the hubbub about personal privacy and online identities, and frankly a bit horrified by the amount of time and energy I’ve invested in Facebook, I spent much of last week working myself up into a state of righteous indignation. This was the last straw, I decided. The time had come to Quit Facebook.</p><p>I’ve been a member of the site since the summer of 2004, just a few months after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (evil mastermind? clever entrepreneur?) fired up Facebook from his dorm room at Harvard. In the beginning, the site’s scope was small: Only college students at certain universities could join, and Middlebury College was one of a dozen or so colleges in that first wave of Facebook institutions. I signed up, and a few weeks later moved into my dorm room in Battell Hall. For a little while, the freshmen in my dorm pored over the old-fashioned, hard copy “facebooks” we received upon matriculation, studying the high school graduation portraits of our peers. </p><p>Before long, though, nearly all of us ditched paper and went digital to track down that cute boy from our geology class or the friend of a friend from Friday’s party.</p><p>In the six years since then, Zuckerberg’s site has rocketed in popularity, and the 26-year-old is one of the youngest billionaires in the world. My own six-year stint on Facebook hasn’t brought me the $4 billion Zuckerberg is rumored to be worth, but for better or worse Facebook is my record of the last half-decade of my life. Here I am, 18 years old and pajama-clad, dancing instead of studying in my freshman dorm room late one night. Click. Here’s a reunion with high school friends. Click. A family vacation at the beach. Click. A semester spent abroad in Europe. Click, click. </p><p>It’s also my record of everyone else’s half-decade, it turns out. On Facebook, I can zoom through photos from weddings I never attended and keep tabs on the career jockeying among my college peers. I carefully guard my privacy settings, but I curate my own photo albums, interests, and status updates with the idea of outsiders looking in. My Facebook self posts infrequently, but my photos hint at a happy domestic life amid the cozy hills of Vermont, punctuated by cultured city outings, rosy-cheeked ski days, and — evidence of my adventurous spirit! — that time I rode the Zipper at Field Days and lived to tell the tale.</p><p>My generation has turned this act of surreptitiously checking up on each others’ lives — a referendum on who’s doing what, when — into a verb: Facebook-stalking. Yet curiously, as often as not, it isn’t others’ lives that I’m stalking on Facebook — it’s my own. I thumb back through old posts and photos with the vanity of someone who believes that every photographed event is monument to our youth, a talisman. This is the proof of the life I’m building: Click, click. </p><p>That’s why the idea of Quitting Facebook is so exhilaratingly horrible. What would happen when the hub of my digital life evaporates into the ether? What would I be left with?</p><p>I’m not the only one contemplating taking the jump — one online movement ( has designated May 31 the day for a mass exodus. Meanwhile, a group of NYU students is hastily designing an open-source alternative to the site, fittingly named “Diaspora.” But I can’t help but think it’s too late, and that any movement to leave the site would be less a mass stampede than a few disgruntled party-goers slipping out the back door while the band’s still playing. Plus, Quitting Facebook might be easier said than done; it’s rumored that permanently deleting accounts is no longer an option on the site. I might never see my data again, but Facebook could well hold on to it forever. </p><p>And psychologically, there’s nothing easy about leaving. So I’ve been talking myself down from the ledge. After all, we cry foul anytime the site changes, but none of these small infringements on our privacy or information is enough to drive many people away from the site. I remain an accomplice in this battle over my online identity: Facebook offers me a service, one I ostensibly value enough to turn over my e-mail address, that artful profile picture, and the biographic sketch of my life. </p><p>In return, Facebook is offering me a version of myself, a collage shaped from photos, witty repartee and a collection of likes and dislikes and connections and friendships. Of course, that means that privacy violations feel all the more personal. Ingeniously, though, it also means that leaving the site voluntarily is all but impossible: To say goodbye to the referendum on my classmates’ success, to the thrill of eavesdropping on others’ lives, and most importantly to my curated Facebook self is too wrenching. So I pour over the privacy settings with an eagle eye and get by as best I can. </p><p>I’ll leave you with this: If you, like me, just can’t bear to wiggle out of our “it’s complicated” relationship with Facebook, at least join the <em>Addison Independent</em> Facebook group. You’ll be in good company. </p>

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