Too much of an open Facebook

Users of the college-oriented Web site didn’t mind sharing information. But they did mind losing control of how that information was shared.

Published September 17, 2006

When Facebook.com tried to become more helpful this month, college students across the nation raised a ruckus breathtaking in scope and speed.

The social networking Web site debuted so-called News Feeds — running news wires tracking and listing even the dullest of actions on one’s friends list.  News reports said that Generation Y, typically tech-savvy but not so hip to the idea of privacy, had gotten an overdue reality check on Internet security.

 But this wasn’t just about privacy. It wasn’t even mostly about privacy, say students, experts on pop culture and observers of online behavior.It was about control.“We’re just so accustomed to having things at our fingertips,” said David Studinski, 22, the editor of the student daily at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. “And when we lose control over what happens when we move those fingertips — that’s when problems occur.”“

It isn’t exactly a privacy issue. We knew this information was out there,” said Stephanie Garry, a University of Florida senior from Crystal River who is the editor of the Independent Florida Alligator. “But because we have been raised on the Internet, we see all of this as — that the media caters to our wants and needs whenever we want.
“MySpace? The name says it all.”

The members of this generation, born in the ’80s and ’90s, so used to YouTube, TiVo and MySpace, almost always get what they want, when they want it, how they want it — click click, and quick quick.

Syracuse pop culture professor Robert Thompson calls them the “on-demand generation.”

The Facebook flap began in the wee hours about two weeks ago.

Mark Zuckerberg created the site in February 2004 when he was a student at Harvard. Now it has more than 9-million users. He’s 22.

Facebook is open to college and high school students, and some businesspeople, too — although soon it will be open to everybody. Administrators announced last week that anybody with an e-mail address will be able to join. On his blog two weeks ago Zuckerberg said the feeds were meant to help users understand what’s going on with their friends and networks.

The instant feeds gave updates of things like who’s in a relationship, who broke up, who added or dropped a friend, who wrote a note, who changed a picture on their profile, and on and on, and all time-stamped — too convenient, some said, for stalkers, rapists, even ex-boyfriends.

All of the information was user-posted. It was all there before. Now, though, it was in one place.

“I think it was a real awakening,” said Robert Hong, the director of educational technology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

To an extent.

Almost 90 percent of American 18- to 29-year-olds are online, according to a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, and their idea of privacy is different than just about anybody’s who’s even a little older.

“Sharing” music isn’t stealing. Neither is jumping onto somebody else’s unchecked wireless signal.
“Once upon a time a kid would buy a diary and it would come with a lock and a key, and they would sooner die than have even their best friend read it,” said Thompson, the pop culture professor.

The Facebook generation? Business Week says a third of them have their cell numbers listed on the Facebook profiles.

“The question is: What is the venue?” said Jeremy Pelzer, 24, a grad student at the University of Illinois at Springfield who helped start a petition at SaveFacebook.com.  “And how much control do we have?”

“You went a little bit too far this time, Facebook,” Northwestern University junior Ben Parr wrote when he started a group called “Students Against Facebook News Feed.” “Very few of us want everyone automatically knowing what we update. We want just a LITTLE bit of privacy  . . .”

Zuckerberg’s response: “The privacy rules haven’t changed. None of your information is visible to anyone who couldn’t see it before the changes.”

Didn’t matter.

Protest groups popped up all over with names like “News Feed — You Suck” and “Facebook’s New Feed Feature Makes It So Easy to Stalk All My Friends.”

But Parr’s group was the biggest by far.

The “official” online petition had 66,000 “signatures” shortly before midnight on the day the flap started.  The count hit 100,000 within a couple of hours , then 200,000 about 11 hours later, then 400,000 about eight hours after that — all the way up to three-quarters of a million not even three full days after this started.

Facebook users called it creepy, freaky, silly ridiculous, weird, lame, dumb and “a little too Big Brother.”
“WAY too stalker-ish,” someone wrote.

And the issue of control came up again and again:

“You, the Facebook.com administrators, have not consulted its users  . . .”

“Can you allow us to decide for ourselves if we want the creepy stalker-box?”

Facebook made an about-face . Zuckerberg and his people in Palo Alto, Calif., added privacy settings that allow users to pick how much information goes out on the feeds, and to whom.

“We want people to know we messed up,” he wrote in his blog apology.

“We had faith that they would change to accommodate our needs,” said Garry, the UF student.

“When it comes to social networks, the users run the company,” said Parry Aftab, the founder of WiredSafety.org.  “Take out the content, and Facebook is nothing — it’s all built by users.

“They made a big corporation listen.”

Ego boost?

“To give you a short answer: Yes,” said Studinski, the Ball State senior.

And as for privacy?

“I noticed that some people did kind of stop updating,” said Paul Einselen, a UF fifth-year student from Tampa. “But I have seen it kind of pick back up again.”

“People will go back to ignoring the privacy issues,” University of Tampa senior Victor O’Brien said. “Business as usual.”

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.