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052812-1Social media sites have revolutionized how, when, and with whom we interact. Then connect users with friends, and through common friends, expand users’ networks. Social media lets friends know how you are and where you are, right now. It has been used to organize revolutions in the Middle East, to spread news, and to petition for change. For millions of users, social media has become a way of life.

Perhaps the largest social network is Facebook. Founded by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg as a social media site for college students, Facebook now has 800 million active users. To put this number in perspective, compare it to the population of the United States on May 27, 2012: 313,622,564. Facebook is a worldwide phenomena with a social network that connects six continents.

Gone are the days of pen pals who exchange snail mail letters. Instead, users can connect with people from around the world. However, this also poses tricky problems for governments and societies with different standards of privacy, and personal and political freedoms. The consequences for a post by a user in the United States may be very different than those facing a user in China, Syria, or Myanmar. Who decides what the standards of privacy and appropriateness are in the online world?

Facebook consumed business headlines last week as Facebook’s IPO entered the NASDAQ stock exchange on May 18. The move means that Facebook stock is now available for investors. It was a less than perfect beginning.  Initial hiccups in the buying and selling process generated lawsuits from investors eager to protect their money, and the stock price fell over the following days. Still, it was a much hyped and anticipated event for one of the world’s most influential businesses. (It was also a big week in Mark Zuckerberg’s personal life. He got married the next day, May 19, 2012.) 052812-2

Despite its success, Facebook is not embraced by everyone. Critics regularly charge that Facebook’s changing privacy policies do not protect individual privacy but benefit Facebook’s growing marketing machine. Facebook “likes” are akin to word-of-mouth marketing. They generate buzz that marketers value. Tracking who posts “likes” that other users follow makes Facebook data a treasure trove for marketers. Do you want businesses Big Brother tracking your social media posts to better capture your business?

The importance of online privacy goes beyond marketing. With millions of users accessing walls, photos, relationships, and locations, the ability to filter what is public is a matter of personal safety, and public discretion. Critics charge that Facebook’s privacy policies are unnecessarily long, and settings are difficult to locate. Both of which make them unfriendly to the very users they should protect.

This week, you will explore issues surrounding Facebook and online privacy.

Facebook: Eroding Privacy

052812-3 To understand and to appreciate better the vast influence of Facebook, examine the infographic Facebook Facts and Figures 2011. Begin by learning about the people who use Facebook. What might skeptics say about the number of friends the average user has? Scroll down learn more about the activity on Facebook. Calculate how many photos are uploaded each minute. Travel down the page to read more about Facebook’s global reach. Calculate a pie chart to show how many Facebook users live in each country. Read more about Facebook’s platform. Record the questions you have so far, as well as your predictions for the most popular Facebook pages and brands with the greatest fan followings. Check your predictions in the sections about the top 10 pages and brands. Based on these, explain your predictions about the age and gender of most Facebook users. Finally, read the timeline of Facebook’s history. What group did Facebook originally target? How long did it take to reach 1 million users? At what time was anyone allowed to become a Facebook user? Explain what you consider the milestones in Facebook’s history. Create a graph that tracks the number of users by date. What does your graph reveal?  

A primary concern about Facebook is the complexity of its privacy policy and how it has changed over the years. The Electronic Frontier Foundation tracks online issues, including privacy. Compare excerpts from successive Facebook privacy policies at EFF.org. How has Facebook’s policy transformed?

Who cares about Facebook privacy settings? It is a logical question. Researchers Dana Boyd and Eszter Hargittai explored that question and published their answer in the University of Illinois’ journal on the internet, First Monday. For an introduction to their article, read the Abstract. Read four sections of their article. First, read Facebook’s history with privacy. Next, read User practices and Facebook’s privacy options. Learn what research questions they hoped to answer by reading the section titled, Research questions. Finally, discover what Boyd and Hargittai discovered by reading their discussion and conclusion. Summarize the key points from the article. Share your response; explain why Facebook’s privacy policy does (not) matter.

A New Privacy Policy

On May 11, 2012, Facebook proposed a new policy change. View Facebook’s entire Data Use Policy. Without pausing to read it, scroll to the bottom. It is long, right? To put Facebook’s policy into perspective, consider: the Constitution of the United States—without the amendments—is 5830 words long. Facebook’s privacy policy is 4543 words. Return to the top; this time, read the first section, Information we receive about you. (Stop at Public Information.) Scroll down further ad read How we use the information we receive. (Stop at Deleting and Deactivating your account.) Scroll through the rest of the policy noting the subheadings. What topics are covered in this document? Find section IV: How advertising and Sponsored Stories works.  Read that section. Record your questions and reactions.052812-4

Scroll to the very bottom of the proposed policy. You will notice 908 shares, posts in response to this proposal. Most object to the new proposal and refer to www.our-policy.org. What is this about? The Facebook privacy policy allows for a user vote if 7,000 people post on an issue. Our-policy.org represents those who oppose the new policy and presents the changes they support. Would you sign this petition? What is your response to the changes these users want?

Protecting Yourself

Even with a lengthy and complicated privacy policy, it is possible to secure some measure of protection on Facebook. The upcoming edition (June, 2012) of Consumer Reports examines the issue of Facebook privacy. Watch the video to learn how to set privacy controls.  How do you suggest users protect themselves? Compare your suggestions to the nine ways suggested in Consumer Reports. Read how children fare on Facebook. What do you suggest to preteens who want to open a Facebook account?

Even the cautious user reveals some things about herself through online posts. See how easy it is for someone to collect the clues and piece them together to learn more about you. Watch the video, How Hard is it to Target Kids Online? Record your response to the video.052812-5

With 800 million users posting, sharing, liking, nothing posted on Facebook is private. Once posted, that material is forever online and out of the poster’s control. A tantalizing video, photo, or post can go viral and be viewed by thousands of people within hours. It is important to consider who those thousands of people are: employers, frienemies, and strangers. Your grandmother. Using privacy settings can help but the very best protection is to use your judgment and to have discretion.