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Alfred Hermida, assistant professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia (©2009 Reilly Lievers/©2009 Reilly Lievers)
Alfred Hermida, assistant professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia (©2009 Reilly Lievers/©2009 Reilly Lievers)

Alfred Hermida

We'd need to quit more than Facebook Add to ...

The idea of a day to quit Facebook was appealing. For the 30,000 people who pledged to kick the habit, it was a way of taking a stand against the cavalier way the world's largest social networking site has treated our most private information. But Monday's Quit Facebook Day was little more than a symbolic act against a company that is merely the latest in a long list of digital tools encouraging the invasion of our privacy.

It is easy to see why people were upset with Facebook, and not just by its byzantine, 5,830-word privacy policy or its overwhelming 50 settings and 170 options. Millions of users were caught by surprise in December, 2009, when Facebook announced changes to default settings to allow profile details to be shared with the wider Web, unless a user specifically opted out. In Canada, it prompted a second investigation by the privacy commissioner.

Facebook's argument, as espoused by its creator Mark Zuckerberg, is that online is moving toward "a Web where the default is social." There are no distinctions between the private and public. Privacy - being able to run our lives without public scrutiny, controlling what others know about it - is no more.

Facebook did not do this to us. We did it to ourselves. We have been redefining notions of privacy since we first posted vacation photos on Flickr, birthday videos on YouTube and lunch details on Twitter. We willing surrendered our privacy.

Canadians certainly like to share. Statistics Canada found that a third of people online posted content to the Web in 2009. The figure is almost 50 per cent for those under 30. We have arrived at a social Web without even realizing it.

The spread of social media highlights a degree of dithering in people's approach to privacy. While fiercely guarding the right to run our lives without public scrutiny, Canadians have opened a window into a private world online.

However, sharing photos from last night's party with a group of friends on Facebook is not the same as publishing them in the pages of The Globe and Mail. This is where the idea of public gets blurred. In both cases, the photos are publicly available. When people post personal content on a social networking site, they are sharing with a public of selected individuals. The public becomes private as the content is aimed at an intended audience that is, to some extent, controlled by the user. This is very different to publishing everything for everyone.

A sense of privacy comes not from limiting the amount of personal details online, but rather from being one in a vast pool of users. Most people can expect a degree of privacy - why would anyone be interested in their profile page or comments? Social networking sites are private spaces only as long as an individual is not worthy of the attention of the media or wider public.

Privacy through obscurity collapses as soon as one of those millions of users becomes "newsworthy." Instead of being famous to 15 people, an individual becomes famous to millions. Personal information intended for a limited number of people suddenly reaches a much broader audience. The sudden broadcast of private and intimate details comes as a surprise to most.

A 2008 survey by Britain's media watchdog, the Press Complaints Commission, found that almost 80 per cent of social networking site users would be more careful with what they put online if they knew journalists might use the information. But these fears haven't stopped people from using social media. Facebook alone has grown from 70 million in May, 2008, to more than 400 million.

Even before Facebook or Twitter, law professor Jeffrey Rosen warned that digital media have been eroding privacy, making it harder for individuals to control what information is made public. Social media has accelerated that trend. To turn back the tide on the sea of personal information online, we would need to do more than quit Facebook. We would have to quit the social Web that has become part of the fabric of our digital lives.

Alfred Hermida is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia.

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