Studying the impact of innovation on business and society

REPORT: Facebook and the New Age of Privacy

It’s said that opposites attract. However, in social media, it’s quite the opposite. The idea of privacy and publicity are in fact at odds with one another. And at the heart of the matter, one social network is caught in the crossfire of sharing information and TMI (too much information). The line that separates privacy and openness remains undefined as it continues to shift as individuals learn important life lessons about the benefits and risks of living in public.

As we evolve into a more open society, the economic value of privacy has inverted. Years ago it was inexpensive to maintain a sense of controlled solitude and expensive to earn public attention. Now the cost of publicness is far lower than the expense of cultivating privacy.

The state of privacy online, or perceived lack thereof, is consuming media headlines and status updates worldwide and webwide. But what might appear to represent the sentiment of the people, may also in fact, represent media sensationalism. As you’ll see, conversations on Twitter regarding privacy fueled discourse and debate as well as awareness of the issue. At the heart of the privacy debate is Facebook and its ongoing series of changes to its privacy policy. This latest PeopleBrowsr report examines the extent of Facebook privacy story between Facebook’s F8 conference in April 2010 and now.

The Privacy Woes of Facebook

Over the years, and at the behest of mainstream and new media, Facebook seemingly monopolized all conversations related to privacy concerns. In 2007, Facebook introduced Beacon, an ad system that provided third-party websites with a script that fed the activity of users back into Facebook feeds. After a very public backlash and a class action lawsuit, Facebook changed its stance.

In December 2009, Facebook introduced a privacy overhaul that was met with immediate criticism. After a series of very public complaints, privacy rules were overhauled once again, this time with the input of its users. The examples continue and date back several years.

However, on April 21st 2010 as the world watched, Facebook introduced us to its Open Graph at its F8 developer event in San Francisco. The announcement was met with cheers and jeers, but what was clear, Facebook and its leader Mark Zuckerberg, were leading us into a new, more public and open Web and way of life. Essentially, we were moving beyond the point of no return.

The Open Graph is nothing short of a game changer, serving as a new platform that turns the 500 million user strong social network into a personalization engine and a fledging contextual network that connects relevant information, content and people. And now with the universality of “Likes” inside Facebook and around the Web, your Facebook persona and social graph becomes portable. The price? Your privacy is traded for openness. The benefits? A living searchable Web that’s personalized to you and your contacts and those topics that interest you.

By placing the power of “Likes” within clicking distance, users can literally set the foundation for the content and people to which they’re introduced in Facebook and at partner sites. Hyperlinks are becoming peoplelinks.

For those who were reluctant to say “ah” to the opening of the social graph, they were forced to manually dam the rivers that carried personal information into the social stream. Users deemed it too difficult to do so, and as such, Facebook simplified the process for erecting walls between you, your activity and relationships, and the rest of the Web. But, because Facebook puts its users in control of privacy, what they see and what they share is wholly defined by their user settings. The more open the preferences the more friends within the social graph see and learn about you. Additionally, it’s how Facebook and Facebook’s outside partners personalize your experience. However, you are in control of the impressions that others form as well as the level of customized information and content you see in Facebook and outside apps and networks.

Searching Public Conversations to Research Privacy

There’s an aura of irony here in researching online privacy and using a very open information network to analyze public conversations. While the content studied here is based on subject matter and not tied to individuals per se, one can expect that public profiling in social networks will soon soar. In many ways, we are already seeing the results of personalized marketing and advertising and the improvement of products and services based on the choice words and sentiments shared by like-minded groups and influential individuals online.

Twitter is a unique beast when it comes to social media. It is a network that’s not only open, but indexed by the search engines and open to APIs. Your profile, updates, and your social graph or as Twitter refers to it, your “interest graph,” is open for analysis and perception freely or for the price of admission set forth by third-party developers who house this data. Twitter COO Dick Costolo once stated that Twitter avoided privacy concerns and discussions as people registered for the service with a full understanding that their conversations took place in a very public and visible forum. While true, I’d argue that as individuals take to social media to broadcast their observations and experiences, they are learning the true meaning of privacy and going public as they go.

Judging by the numbers, Costolo is indeed right. Twitter users aim their attention at Facebook when discussing privacy and not Twitter.

Privacy by the Numbers

Working with PeopleBrowsr, we studied the number of Tweets that flew across Twitter referencing privacy or related keywords dating back just prior to the now infamous F8 conference.

Prior to the event on April 24th, privacy Tweets hovered between 1,000 to 3,000 references per day mostly in anticipation of the much-rumored changes to Facebook’s public policy. On the day of F8, privacy emerged as a focal point of many online comments, cries, and reactions, spiking to almost 9,000 in a single day.

As the event itself drew to a close, privacy discussions raged on, but at varying levels. On April 25th, privacy-related Tweets fell sharply to 3,500 only to surge the very next day to just under 7,500 when politicians joined the fray. Four senators sent a letter to Facebook demanding that the company refrain from “opting in” users to new information-sharing features and to provide easier ways to control what information is shared and to whom. Congressman Rick Boucher, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet led the draft of a new privacy bill to find a balance between privacy protection and the ability for online companies to introduce targeted advertising based on behavior and public information shared in the network.

As a result of government intervention, privacy-related Tweets escalated once again toward 9,000.

What’s clear, going back to the day when privacy took center stage, the media sensationalized the topic, but consumers, at least those on Twitter, did not flood the streets with 140 character picket signs. 9,000 tweets do not seem to account for the millions of Twitter users or the 500,000 million people who have Facebook accounts.

But around May 25th, we saw privacy discussions hit the ceiling, at least in this particular study, with over 20,000 unique discussions. Many individuals organized online protests, boycotts, exits, and privacy lobbies. For example, once such group in Facebook maintains a membership of over 2.2 million.

At the beginning of June, Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg held Mark Zuckerberg’s feet to the fire during the annual AllThingsD conference (D8).

Zuckerberg apologized for privacy gaffes and for questionable remarks he made as a teenager, early in Facebook’s rise. However, his stance was clear. He believes users want to share and experience a very public digital life and he will help them connect at varying comfort levels.

The Not-So-Private Privacy Conversation

In order to get a better look at how the conversations related to privacy were stacked, we focused on several specific keywords including Facebook, Open Graph, Zuckerberg, Google, #privacy, among others.

Facebook and Open Graph accounted for a majority of conversations taking place prior to F8 and through the beginning of May. With a high of 5,000 on April 22nd, 27th and again on May 5, Facebook dominated the landscape where mentions of “#privacy” hovered around 500 references per day and “my privacy” barely registering. On April 20th, Google was thrown into the mix with 3,500 appearances tied to privacy when 10 countries organized to send a public letter to Google to protect “our” privacy. Many news organizations publicized the news, which accounted for a majority of the tweets and retweets.

For the most part however, individual subjects hovered at or below 750 daily references.

Privacy vs. Facebook Privacy

The PeopleBrowsr team then focused on privacy related Tweets as compared to those that specifically referenced Facebook. On May 26th and 27th following Washington’s reactions, general conversations about privacy hit a high of just over 18,000 while those specific to Facebook topped out above 12,000. Over the coming days however, the subject of privacy would lose momentum. After dipping to 4,000 general privacy and 2,000 tied to Facebook, interest jumped again on June 2nd, hitting 8,000 and 4,500 respectively. By July 15, privacy tweets waned 4,000 (privacy in general) and 1,000 (Facebook + privacy), maintaining a delta of roughly 2,000 over the course of 45 days.

Following Zuckerberg’s appearance at D8, conversations about Facebook privacy on Twitter have idled.

The Media Sensation

Earlier in the report, we discussed the media’s role in fueling privacy discussions. As such, we decided to compare public “@” conversations against those clearly sharing links to stories regarding privacy and Facebook. As you can see, conversations follow the media, which one could argue, is true for most events. However, individuals carried the conversation forward, in many ways challenging the media’s coverage of privacy to express opinions, concerns, and points of resolution.

What’s clear however, individuals and the greater population of Twitter are not as concerned about privacy, the Open Graph, or privacy settings as the media would otherwise have you believe. But, when Facebook forces human connections and society into a more public spotlight, people and the power of the press will continue to push back. Without pushing back, we cannot push things forward collaboratively. The future of social networks, privacy, and publicness lay not in creation, but instead, co-creation. It is true, we are the last generations to know privacy as it was. Over time we predict this debate will evolve into a series of educational and productive forums and memes that explore the differences significant differences between public and publicness. The value in privacy will only escalate when compared to publicity. However, the value of publicness will also soar as individuals eventually learn how to shape their experiences and the impressions of others. While there are risks involved with living in public, there are also rewards for participation. What works against you also works for you.

To dive further into the real-time discussions on privacy, please visit the special dashboard we created to help you stay connected to the privacy discussion as it unfolds.

Download the report…

Facebook and the New Age of Privacy

Connect with Brian Solis on Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Facebook
Please consider reading, Engage!: It will help you find answers to your questions…

Image Source: Shutterstock

226 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “REPORT: Facebook and the New Age of Privacy”

  1. Tedb says:

    Great post, Brian. I believe that social community privacy is more often than not a larger concern for those lacking discretion. All on-line actions should be considered “open-source” with a “beware the share” caveat.

  2. The first thing that comes to mind on this is, “Is the Twitter Population really the population we want to analyze when we consider online privacy?”
    These are people who are used to the concept of sharing in public and often actively engaged in doing so.
    Would we be better served knowing what the general FB population thinks?
    I'll caveat by saying I've only read the above blog post, not the full report, but that's next on my reading list.

    • briansolis says:

      Absolutely…agreed. You'll appreciate this section, “Searching Public Conversations to Research Privacy…There’s an aura of irony here in researching online privacy and using a very open information network to analyze public conversations”

  3. This is excellent, thanks. As the debate unfolds, I wonder how committed to privacy consumers really are when they complain about FB. As evidenced by the statistics around Twitter, people are willing to share just about anything publicly. I wonder if the concerns over FB are more about Zuckerberg than they are about actual privacy.

  4. AJ says:

    Great article again, but I think the big difference between Twitter and Facebook in teh privacy issue is that on Twitter alot of people tweet everything and they know in advance that once it is out there, it is for all to be read and that with Facebook these same people think, because they invite just their friends, that their privacy in protected somehow. That is why ( I think ) people make less fuss about Twitter than about Facebook.

  5. Kyle Lacy says:

    Facebook's problem isn't necessarily the privacy issue in its entirety…it's the lack of honesty. They weren't open about what they were doing and Twitter is what it is. No masks.

  6. vooying says:

    At this point, I would not trust Facebook as far as I can throw it!

  7. This is definitely leading us to the point where a new paradigm of “privacy” is created. People are slowly but surely seeing the benefits of an open social graph, but it will take time. I'd argue that social media monitoring by consumer brands is probably slowing down this process.

    Smart brands aren't disruptive when they engage people who might be interested in their brand, but it is still the wild west out there. When brands barge into conversations on Twitter based on keywords or topics, it makes people feel like they are constantly being watched and preyed upon.

    When societal norms are established based on the social networking and digital world, the privacy paradigm will have shifted.

  8. simplycast says:


  9. socialstacy says:

    Great article, thanks for sharing!

  10. JeremyK says:

    Very well told, Brian. I think that a big part of why Twitter users have so many less concerns about privacy is that the users of Twitter understand that they are not in control of who follows their “tweets”, that their “tweets” are going to be followed by whomever choses to follow them. Whether that be friends, parents, co-workers, or whoever. With that understanding, Twitter users adopt a sort of self-filter on their posts and will not post just anything that comes to mind because they do not want someone that might be in a position of authority over them to know exactly what all is going on in their lives. Facebook, on the other hand, has a lot of concerns about privacy because literally anyone can pretend to be anybody that they want to be, and it is easy, too. For instance, during Darren McFadden's playing days at the University of Arkansas a few years ago I noticed that there were a whole page full of facebook profiles of people claiming to be Darren McFadden. Now I understand that this may be a ridiculous example, but if you think about it only one person can really be Darren McFadden while the rest are either phonies or fan pages. Take away the fact that Darren McFadden is a celebrity and you have a problem of people pretending to be somebody that they are not. Problems like this are all over Facebook and occur with more extreme consequences, the biggest being different forms of stalking.

  11. Love your quote – “What works against you also works for you” – the best quote for the privacy debate, people should think before complaining about certin things. I also agree that twitter is more private than FB mainly because of it's completly different nature, but this this sentece kind of sums up the research for me “Judging by the numbers, Costolo is indeed right. Twitter users aim their attention at Facebook when discussing privacy and not Twitter.”

  12. vasundhar says:

    Privacy is a Myth. You have only two choices to Accept, or to Adopt

  13. Virtualjune says:

    Great blog, Brian. Very informative. In truth, what is truly private today.

  14. Annie Carson says:

    I definitely think that there is a correlation between what the sites are used for and their privacy issues. As Facebook is considered more of a private space for people to connect with others they know, they share more personal details, therefore withholding their profiles from the general public. The idea of Twitter is the exact opposite – get your name out there and connect with people you may not know. Great post, very valuable information!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join Our Mailing List

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Stay Connected