194 friends isn’t really “private”

I was rather struck by this story in the Social Web blog, about a poor young soccer player: he intended to just tell his Facebook friends about the fact that he might be transferring teams, but accidentally posted it publicly, so that it became breaking news.

On the one hand, this story is about complex technology, and the way that people have trouble keeping track of “public” vs. “private” settings. That’s a valid point — as the complexity of this technology grows, it becomes tricky to remember what’s going where. (Even on LiveJournal people occasionally screw up, and it has one of the better UIs in this regard.)

That said, I was more taken in by the notion that something posted to 194 Facebook friends is “private”. I mean, I suppose it’s possible he actually vets his friends that carefully, and that they can all keep a secret. But it would surprise me: there’s a lot of truth in the old saw that three people can keep a secret only if two of them are dead.

It’s pretty clear to me that, historically, that’s too big a group to keep a big secret — even if he’d only posted it to the people he expected, it would likely have gotten leaked somewhere along the line. It’s cool, interesting news about someone that people care about. Folks would have talked about it, that talk would spread, and he’d still have gotten a call from a reporter — maybe a few days later, but probably before too long.

This is a mistake that everyone seems to have to make for themselves. Heaven knows I made it myself, back in the Usenet days — suffice it to say, I gossiped rather foolishly about someone whose wife turned out to be in the group. Even in real-world face-to-face communication, secrets tend to spread if you tell just half a dozen people, unless each is individually sworn to secrecy. Somehow, when we get cozy with our friends online, we often forget how many people we’re talking to, and that the permeability of the group rises with the number of readers.

Will this change? In many ways, the “digital native” generation gets the implications of online communication a lot better than most of their parents ever will, and yet they do still seem to be making the same errors. Possibly this is just because social-network tech is a little too new: nobody’s really grown up with Facebook yet. Do you think this lesson, and others like it, will eventually get baked into the conventional wisdom that every kid knows? Or is this going to continue to be one of those universal gaffes, where everyone needs to get burned once? (Perhaps at age six, the way things are going…)

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14 Responses to “194 friends isn’t really “private””

  1. Monica Says:

    People still have to learn “three people can keep a secret only if two are dead” the hard way in offline interactions, so I don’t think the clue will be near-automatic in online interactions any time soon. I think people are going to be learning this individually for a while yet. (But hey, better that the learning experience be over “Bobby has a crush on Suzie” at age six than over “Bob is going to divorce Suzie to make things easier on his mistress” later, y’know?)

    There is an extra dimension to online communication that makes this problem messier: the blog entry, Usenet post, or email message is forever (and you can’t be too sure about the IM log either), whereas a verbal conversation is there only in the moment. (Even for physical offline communications — that is, letters — they’re less accessible.) So when you post something to your blog, with or without filtering, you are posting it for your current readers *and for everyone who will stumble across it later* — maybe years later. When I add someone to an LJ filter I am thinking not only about future posts but about what archives I’m giving that person access to. (And tags make that crawl through the archives easier.) I’ve probably screwed this up in some places, even though I think I’m pretty conscientious about this stuff.

  2. Jim E-H Says:

    I suspect it’ll remain one of those mistakes that everyone makes once, like finding out the hard way that a mailing list defaults to “reply to all.” The only way I could see that being avoided is if you could somehow be made to feel the size of the group you’re speaking to, with a diminishing sense of their connections, and so on. I have no idea what form that might take, or if it’s even possible to do in a way that is more effective than an “are you sure?” dialog and not so annoying that it kills whatever service it’s part of. (It may be particularly problematic for social networks, because at the “beginner” time when learning could be favored over ease of use is also when a user will be less likely to have a large network.)

  3. metahacker Says:

    I’m seeing the other direction slowly arising: people assume everyone knows everything they’re doing, and are surprised by private actions. Oh, they still have private spaces, but — as with that Facebook user, I would guess — these are the exception rather than the norm. Broadcast is becoming the default.

    And it’s changing expectations about interaction. Because of my LiveJournal, for example, it’s usual for me to show up at a party and know that most of the people there will already know what I’ve been up to the past few weeks, things on my mind, and so forth. And vice versa.

    On the flip side I don’t think a lot of people really *get* just how public internet posting is. There was a decent ad a few months ago about a young girl getting complemented by, well, everybody, on her new tattoo (implied to be in a private area); the message was that what you say online is, indeed, viewable by everyone from your dentist to random guys on the street. I don’t see people modifying their behaviors in a way that shows that they really get that.

    Another piece of this is persistence. Old posts never die! The Usenet gaffe you refer to above is most likely available to view even today, fifteen or more years later. So any screw-ups can persist (assuming they’re cached before they are remarked as private), with no real recourse. As more of our lives are recorded and broadcast, this irreparable nature of certain errors is causing new behaviors. Folks are getting better at apologizing, and better at forgiving; though there is also the wonderful flash-ostracize behavior that springs up all over over the slightest hint of an unrepentant transgressor.

    Surprisingly, what you *don’t* seem to see much is people actually censoring themselves more. The urge to share our opinions seems overwhelming…

  4. Alexx Kay Says:

    “Folks are getting better at apologizing, and better at forgiving”

    This is my great hope for the direction of a (largely) privacy-free society. Once we all live in glass houses, a lot fewer stones will be thrown.

  5. Justin Says:

    [Hmm. Does WordPress permit any HTML in comments? I have no idea, but I may as well find out.]

    Monica: “When I add someone to an LJ filter I am thinking not only about future posts but about what archives I’m giving that person access to.”

    Yaas. I will admit that there are a one or two cases where I’ve specifically not added someone to a filter because I know that I’ve spoken bluntly about them in it.

    The permanence of online communications means that you can’t repudiate your words as easily down the line, so blows don’t soften as easily. When we say something face-to-face, it’s fairly easy to later say, “No, really, I didn’t mean it that way” — whether people really believe that or not, it’s a useful face-saving maneuver. But that’s a lot harder in the written context.

    Jim: “The only way I could see that being avoided is if you could somehow be made to feel the size of the group you’re speaking to, with a diminishing sense of their connections, and so on.”

    Fascinating idea, actually. I wonder if graphics might play into this somehow. I could imagine, for example, some sort of background element that viscerally conveys the scope of the conversation without getting in the way too much. Worth pondering, anyway.

    metahacker: “I’m seeing the other direction slowly arising: people assume everyone knows everything they’re doing, and are surprised by private actions.”

    Good point. I’ve always tended to be pretty public myself: that used to be kind of unusual, but I do get the impression that it’s becoming more common, especially among the younger crowd online.

    And the idea that a more online society will wind up more forgiving is a very encouraging one. I hope you’re right…

  6. Chad Says:

    I’ve very much noticed that the definition of ‘friend’ on Facebook is *worlds* looser than it is in most places. Maybe not as loose as MySpace, which seems to revolve around the ‘who has the most friends’ competition, but certainly people seem to have far more ‘friends’ in FB than they do, in say, LJ, and people tend to have more in LJ than they would count in real life, often.

    I suspect in the case of FB v. LJ, it has to do with the energy costs. In FB, it is pretty easy to blithely ignore anything coming through your recent feed, especially in those small bite size chunks. In LJ, unless you aggressively filter, you spend a lot more energy reading or actively ignoring entries on your ‘friends page’, so it costs a lot more, in that sense, to list someone as your friend.

    Also, the nature of the information you must consume as a result of friending someone is a lot denser. Most of the stuff floating through facebook is the informational equivalent of empty calories. Posts to a more blog oriented system like LJ leads to much meatier information, asking for more time chewing and thinking, and more matter missed if you ignore it and let it scroll off the front page.

  7. Chad Says:

    Monica: Good for you to pull up the Ben Franklin quote! (3 may keep a secret….)

  8. Justin Says:

    Chad: I suspect in the case of FB v. LJ, it has to do with the energy costs.

    Not a bad way of looking at it, and I suspect you’re right.

    An interesting question is whether this is simply a difference of systems, or an evolutionary change. There is a *huge* amount of investment currently going into systems that are “low-energy”, such as Twitter and its ilk. Indeed, there are so many of these feed-oriented models that simply keeping track of them is turning into a solid business for aggregators like FriendFeed. By contrast, not much attention is being paid to “high-energy” systems like LJ and CommYou. (CommYou is intended to be a little easier to track than LJ, but that’s largely in the service of making it easier to participate in dense conversations.)

    Right now, I’m staking the business on the theory that there will always be a solid place and use for deeper and more intense interactions. But given the number of people who appear to be betting otherwise, it’s occasionally a little intimidating…

  9. metahacker Says:

    I am really missing threaded commenting right now. Also, comment notification and easy quoting.

    That is all.

  10. Justin Says:

    I am really missing threaded commenting right now. Also, comment notification and easy quoting.

    Ayep. WordPress is, unsurprisingly, fairly good at the blogging side of things, but mediocre at the ensuing conversation. (Which is why I suspect this blog will eventually wind up migrating into CommYou, but there are a lot of features necessary before that makes sense…)

  11. Siderea Says:

    You know, every time I hear that old aphorism about three people keeping a secret, I think about the Charlestown murders, and the protracted inability of the cops to get anyone to testify. That’s an extreme case, but I’ll point out that there’s plenty of precedent for large groups of people keeping secrets. A classic example is the small town secret, where everyone knows that Johnny’s father was sleeping around on Johnny’s mother — except Johnny.

    One of the completely uncommented upon things I’ve been observing is that the factor which sheltered the murderers of Charlestown and hypothetical Johnny’s father is now being applied to the internet: a system of social norms about what you do or don’t divulge. A small example is the norm widely adopted on LJ that to discuss what was on a locked post in any other post, including in another post of the same author, is a transgression of privacy. Which is not to say that nobody does it; that’s not what “norm” means. But it does mean the social cost of that transgression is much higher. Now you’re not just pissing off an individual when you betray their secrets, you’re engaging in a token behavior which widely marks you as anti-social, and you stand to lose status before a whole group.

    This is something most people wanking about “privacy” online don’t seem to get. Norms may seem flimsy — after all, any person can exercise their free will to violate them. But they are enormously powerful forces at organizing and coordinating behavior in groups. Most people talking about security are thinking in terms of walls, before which norms look like drops of water. But those drops can multiply into a current that one is not likely to swim against.

    I’m not surprised so many of these stories are about accidental publication, as opposed to leaks. In small (< 120pp) groups, the social capital cost to the leaker can be astronomical.

  12. Justin Says:

    True enough, and on the LiveJournal side you’re probably entirely correct. However, my perception is that most social networks are, at this point, rather more permeable than LJ is, with somewhat less developed senses of etiquette.

    In particular, it seems like FB encourages a much more casual concept of friending than LJ. Flists of hundreds of people are common, and thousands are far from unknown — significantly larger, on average, than on LJ. Even the wording of the friend function encourages this — when someone tries to friend you, it essentially asks, “Do you know this person?” That’s a very low bar for friending.

    In such a situation, I would expect the social implications of leakage to be a good deal weaker on average. Not non-existent by any means, but if you’re paying less attention to your flist, it seems likely that you’re more likely to wind up with people who are less tied in, and therefore simply won’t suffer as much social consequence for transgression.

    All that said, you’re probably broadly correct, especially in where things are going in the long run. It’s possible that I am over-estimating how loose the typical FB friend list is, and it’s *quite* possible that LJ is a good indicator of the evolving social mores, as people come to understand the implications of online social participation better…

  13. Monica Says:

    I have no experience with FB, but the previous comment makes me wonder about something. On LJ, I take “friend” access pretty seriously because there is pretty serious content. In contrast, on LinkedIn, where there is no content to speak of (it’s all about the network), I’ll accept a link from pretty much anyone I know, even if we’re not close and I wouldn’t share secrets with that person. I have the impression the FB falls somewhere in the middle — there is content but more of it is “public-safe” or impersonal (like “memes”). Is that impression anywhere near right? If so, would that affect the size of “friend” lists?

    As for keeping secrets in groups, I think Siderea is right that it’s possible, but I suspect it has to be really, really important to the community for that secret to be kept. If there’s even one person who just doesn’t care if Johnny finds out about his parentage, it’ll get out eventually. It’ll probably be an accident rather than a link (as previously suggested). Keeping a secret is work, so people not invested in the outcome are more likely to be accident-prone.

  14. Justin Says:

    Is that impression anywhere near right? If so, would that affect the size of “friend” lists?

    I believe the answer is probably “yes” in both cases — the content is typically lighter-weight than on LJ, and that this makes people more casual about friending.

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