How Facebook disrupted online privacy
Fifteen years ago, if I had told you there was a site on the internet where you could share your real name and heaps of real photos and connect with everyone you’d ever met, you would’ve likely asked me why you’d want to do such a thing.
Flash forward to today. Nearly 15 years after it launched in 2004, Facebook is now inhabited by one-quarter of all humans on the planet.
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan once said, “Fish did not discover water.” We can say the same thing is now true of Facebook. We are so immersed in it, we no longer see. It becomes much harder to question, to think about how it could be different or even what we did without it.
Without one clear identifiable moment we can point to, Facebook has slowly yet dramatically changed the culture of the internet. Specifically, Facebook has drastically altered online privacy norms. Put another way, Facebook disrupted privacy.
How did this happen? And what does it mean for how we as a society and culture adopt new technologies?
Nobody knows you’re a dog
The internet was once a place where identities were something to play with. ‘Real life’ identities were concealed or only partially revealed. Unless you explicitly shared, no one knew who you were, where you lived and who your friends were.
You might remember the now famous The New Yorker cartoon from 1993, with two dogs sitting at a computer, the first dog proclaiming to the second, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Even as late as 2004, people were still afraid to share their personal details or credit card information with online retailers.
So, when Facebook first launched in 2004 exclusively for Harvard, the idea of sharing everything online as your ‘real self’ was not a thing. The term ‘social media’ had not yet been invented, and ‘social network sites’ was so far from a household term that there was even an academic debate about the accuracy of the term in describing Facebook et al.
The same year that Facebook launched, one of the first academic papers was published on social networking sites, which was essentially an explainer of what these sites were. The piece provides a great glimpse into how alien the idea of going online to connect with people you knew in real life was in 2004.
When he created Facebook, Zuckerberg recognised he had a challenge on his hands. People liked their online privacy, so he set about to change our minds.
And it worked. At the 2008 Web 2.0 Summit, Zuckerberg stated, “[In 2004,] when Facebook was just getting started, most people didn’t want to put information about themselves on the internet. So we got people through this really big hurdle of getting people to want to put up their full name, a real picture, mobile phone number … and connections to real people …”
As I am sure we have all noticed, the trend continued, with Facebook continually nudging us to share more information with it and with each other.
Indeed, now we’re at a point where so much personal information is being shared and collected by so many parties and being used for so many questionable purposes, it has spurred a ‘techlash’ from experts and the public alike.
We’re at a point where so much personal information is being shared and collected by so many parties and being used for so many questionable purposes, it has spurred a techlash.
The situation has become so serious that it has also caught the attention of government regulators around the world, including here in Australia. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), who are responsible for protecting the rights of Australian consumers, recently launched an investigation into just how much personal data companies like Facebook and Google have about us and how they are potentially misusing that information.
And this was even before the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data scandal broke, which has now caught the attention of everyone, everywhere—regulators or otherwise.
Death by a thousand cuts
So how did we get here? It wasn’t by accident.
There are three ways Facebook systematically pushed its users to share more. The first was how they designed the site (features and settings). The second was how they ran they site (policies). And third was the way they talked about the site and their activities (discursive framing). Sometimes these were used individually, but more commonly they were used together.
While the way they pushed users to be more public and share more involved hundreds of choices and changes over nearly 15 years, there are a few key moments or actions that serve to demonstrate this strategy.
Privacy through obscurity
When Facebook launched, it was student-only and required a university email to join. Everything on the site was locked down and only viewable to students. Functionally, this created a clear sense of safety and privacy. Users felt safe sharing because they knew only other students would see. There was no risk of parents or employers stumbling upon your drunken party photos.
In these early days, Facebook was also a largely static site in that there was no news feed. Instead, it was just a collection of profile pages. If you wanted to see what your friend was up to, you had to specifically go to their page. The only way to see if they had updated something, for example, a relationship status, was by going and checking yourself.
These two features combined meant users experienced privacy through obscurity, which (somewhat ironically) actually encouraged them to share more on the site.
But then, in 2006, Facebook did something it is now famous for. It drastically changed the terms of engagement without asking or even warning users. It added what is now a staple of the Facebook experience: the news feed.
Overnight, Facebook users found that, suddenly, all their activities and profile changes were being broadcast to their friends. There was outrage and threats of a boycott. And in another now classic move, Facebook apologised, added some new somewhat tokenistic privacy features and promised to do better next time. But they kept the news feed pretty much as is. Two steps forward, one step back.
In line with the rest of the internet, Facebook also turned a blind eye to people who used pseudonyms. In the same way they changed the terms of engagement with the news feed and as people got more comfortable and more reliant on Facebook, the company increasingly enforced its policy of requiring users to go by their real names and only connecting with people they knew in real life. In this way, through a tweak in policy, Facebook helped people get over the privacy hurdle of being themselves online, whether they liked it or not.
Using a similar tactic to the news feed introduction but on a smaller scale, Facebook also slowly changed its privacy settings to push users to share more publicly. It did this by changing its default privacy settings increasingly from private by default to public by default.
Again, recall in the early days of Facebook, everything was private and only available to other users who were logged in. Google Engineer Matt McKeon tracked and documented these changes from 2005 to 2010, the key time period when this shift was being made. What is important about privacy default settings is that they require users to change them, to opt in to privacy rather than opt in to sharing publicly. It also requires users to be aware of the change, and as you can see from Matt’s infographic, these changes were numerous.
Facebook pushed users to share more information with more people.
In this way, in a number of tiny, small changes, Facebook pushed users to share more information with more people.
The obvious consequence of Facebook’s strategy is a loss of privacy. But more broadly, Facebook’s strategy around how it enabled that loss of privacy is quite instructive. It gives us a glimpse into just how social and cultural norms can be nudged and changed over time.
Put another way, imagine if Facebook had launched in its current 2018 incarnation in 2004. It would not have succeeded, because what was being asked of users was too confronting—too far removed from the privacy norms at the time. Instead, Facebook slowly got us to that place, helping us over our privacy hurdles.
Looking at visions of the future—say the one imagined in George Orwell’s 1984 or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy—we wonder how humanity got to those points. It wasn’t overnight but over thousands and thousands of small changes over a long period of time.
Taking this thought experiment one step further, what would happen if we continued on the same path we’re on? What could the world look like in 15 years? Find out in the second part to this piece.