Posts Tagged ‘privacy’

194 friends isn’t really “private”

July 10, 2008

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…)