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Users say Web site now too much 'in your face'

Facebook.com, popular with students, added some changes that users say reveal way too much personal information

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published September 7, 2006


This week, University of South Florida student Jeanette Garcia  learned in lightning-quick time that one friend was engaged and that another friend’s romance had fizzled.

Her personal page on Facebook.com was flooded with such information, none of it solicited: about who planned to attend which party, about a friend’s new music preferences.

She didn’t want all the updates, but controversial new features rolled out by Facebook this week give her little choice.

“I think it’s kind of horrible,” said Garcia, 20. “It’s too much information.”

Hundreds of thousands of other Facebook users agree and are revolting against the new features, which track their actions on the social networking site and pass them on to users listed as their “friends.”

If members drop an old boyfriend or post an embarrassing post-kegger photo, all the people signed onto their social network — including, in many cases, people they’ve never met — now learn about it almost instantly from a posting on their personal home pages.

The postings run from the dull — “Jane signed up John as a new friend” — to the artistically questionable: “Jim now lists Liberace as his favorite performer.”

But the juicier news, like Jack broke up with Jill and already has someone new named Barbie, also appears. There’s even a time stamp to mark the heartbreaking occasion.

An invasion of privacy?

Facebook officials say these features — dubbed News Feed and Mini-feed — are a way for users to keep track of their friends’ lives. But hundreds of thousands of Facebook’s more than 9-million users beg to differ.

Students say it’s pointless, annoying, embarrassing and creepy. Not to mention a significant invasion of privacy.
Their chief complaint is that personal information they once posted selectively, now, in a matter of hours, becomes uncomfortably public.

They fear that weirdos signed on as their “friends” will find out what party they’re attending Saturday night and show up uninvited.

“It’s like stalking,” said University of Florida freshman Ashley Burnett, who graduated from Gaither High School in Tampa.

“Just because someone signs up as your friend on Facebook doesn’t mean they’re really your friends,” said Burnett, 18. “You might meet them once and make them a 'friend,’ but then they creep you out and you never want to talk to them. Now they can get updates on your life.”

Until this week, Burnett was a big fan of Facebook.com.

The popular Web site allowed her to stay in touch with old friends from Gaither and to make new ones at UF.

 “I try to avoid Facebook now,” Burnett said Thursday. “Some of the changes are so stupid. If you break up with your boyfriend, now the whole world knows, as if breaking up isn’t bad enough.”

Hundreds of thousands of Facebook users have e-mailed the company and formed protest groups to express outrage at the changes.

A student at UF launched “A Day Without Facebook” campaign to get members there to organize a boycott of the site .

A student at Northwestern University teamed up with a student at the University of Iowa to start a group called Students Against Facebook News Feed, which has amassed more than 330,000 members.

Other members circulated an online petition, which quickly gathered tens of thousands of virtual signatures, demanding that users be given an option to disable the new features.

The Facebook site is now filled with user groups titled “News Feed ruined my life!” and “On Strike Against the New Facebook!!!”

Students flooded Facebook’s own blog with comments, forcing founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to post a response titled, “Calm Down. Breathe. We Hear You.”

Privacy options available

“We didn’t expect so much negative feedback,” Facebook spokeswoman Melanie Deitch said. She pointed out that the new features allow users to hide specific actions from specific users by changing certain privacy options.

“I don’t believe there’s a privacy issue here,” Deitch said.

From its inception two years ago, Facebook has done more than other social-networking sites to preserve members’ privacy.

In the beginning, it only allowed those affiliated with a college or university to become users. It has since allowed high school students, political candidates and people in business to join.

Facebook also gives members three different options to regulate who views their personal information. Many people, mindful of privacy issues, allow their information to be seen only by close friends.

Facebook builds on earlier social-networking sites such as Friendster, allowing users to create their own personal home pages.

They can post photos and lists of their interests, hobbies and majors, in addition to personal information ranging from their relationship status to their political affiliation and preferred cocktail. Users can even send party invitations and post photos that show up on their friends’ pages.

According to research company comScore Networks Inc., Facebook recently became one of the 10 most viewed sites on the Web, with 6.1-billion page views in July.

The average Facebook user spends 16 to 18 minutes a day on the site, and more than half of all users log on at least once a day, according to the company.

When Garcia, the USF student, logged on earlier this week, she had a News Feed message about her friend’s sudden breakup.

“There was a little broken heart, and it said she is no longer dating,” Garcia, 20, said Thursday. “Then I just got one that says they’re back together. Two days ago, I found out my other friend got engaged.”

Garcia, annoyed at the constant barrage of updates and worried about privacy issues, already joined two anti-Facebook groups.

“People are worried strangers will show up where you’re at,” she said. “It’s a safety hazard. And it’s so much information, I don’t even know where to look for real messages from my friends.

“I just hope they change it back.”

Information from the Wall Street Journal was used in this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.

[Last modified September 7, 2006, 22:09:51]


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