Changing Expectations of Privacy, One Facebook User at a Time

Anticipating Facebook’s initial public offering, a New York Times reporter observed that Mark Zuckerberg “has managed to amass more information about more people than anyone else in history.”

Technology – the Internet – made this possible. But it was not technology alone: millions of people have willingly given to Facebook their names, photos and other personal information. In exchange, they get access to a service that enables them to engage in a vast, new form of social interaction with anyone else who happens to be a Facebook user. All this accumulated information about its users, their price of admission, is Facebook’s greatest asset – it is the reason the company’s public offering has attracted such attention.

Of course, as Facebook develops new ways to monetize this asset, it must pay some attention to users’ anxiety about exactly that. A recent poll shows that most Facebook users report having “little or no faith that the company will protect their personal information.” Indeed, just 13 percent of users trust Facebook to guard their data, and “only 12 percent would feel safe making purchases through the site.”

But it’s not clear that these figures should give Facebook much pause. Mark Zuckerberg has succeeded in creating a service so wildly popular that it can count the vast majority of people under the age of 35 as users. And Facebook is committed to the constant enhancement of the experience of its users, so that they will continue willingly to give up information about themselves. By seeking to establish Facebook as the default platform for social networking and communication, moreover, Zuckerberg and his team are transforming the use of Facebook into a virtual necessity for living in the modern world.

Regardless of their concerns, then, every one of its users is helping Facebook to change societal expectations about the nature and limits of privacy – about what information can and should be deemed ours and ours alone. That change is the basis for Facebook’s promise to its shareholders – the promise that it will never stop trying to find ways to enhance its ability to discover all that it can about its users. Facebook will realize its full potential for shareholders when it can predict what its users want, perhaps even before they know themselves. That was once something we could state with confidence only of close friends and family.

Lawrence Friedman

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