Facebook and the Economics of Oversharing

Even my dad is on Facebook. He’s there, along with a mess of cousins of all ages, a few great aunts, and of course a bunch of my friends. I would expect that most of the middle two categories – who are largely rural, not super computer savvy, and err on the side of TMI most of the time in their postings – aren’t really aware of how much of their information gets out to the universe. After a few weeks of tumult, Facebook has announced new, simplified privacy settings, which may help uncomplicate the process of protecting your information. Or not.

Most end users (that’s us) make the mistake of thinking that the “product” Facebook is offering is the social network – the ability to post and share information, photos, and virtual hugs with friends and family. They see Facebook as providing a matrix for performing sociality that allows them to be their e-selves for as many people as will be their friend.

They are, sadly, dead wrong.

The real product that Facebook offers is, in fact, us and all of the information we share on the site. The real “customers” of Facebook are the myriad of companies who purchase ads, create electronic interfaces for games, polls, and quizzes, which in turn allow for more ads. What Facebook is selling is you (and your – and your aging aunt’s, your 14-year old cousin’s, and your dog’s – information).

Which is why the site has calculatedly forced, cajoled and tricked its users into making public more and more information. More info available equals more click-through dollars for Facebook and its partners. More restrictions on what info goes public (and thus gets processed through those clicks) equals less money for Facebook & Co. Facebook says they want to play nice with their users’ information, but they also want to play nice with their bottom line.

Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of each end user to protect their information. Which is where the idea of being part of a virtual community comes into play, and we each have to ask ourselves what responsibility we have to our “friends” online. Being part of a social network, I think, means taking some responsibility for helping our virtual friends protect the information they are sharing. So, those of us with friends and family who are teens (or elderly aunts, or clueless oversharing hipsters) have a responsibility to be aware of the next gambit in Facebook’s game and help those folks understand what they’re sharing and with whom. We’re all “friends” after all.

I’d go further, though, and suggest that maybe we should also take a minute to help  the most hapless of our cohorts: go to their house to help them unclick some of those potentially revealing selections. And while you’re there, stick around and have an actual conversation. Make that community a little less virtual and maybe you’ll learn something important they haven’t posted on Facebook.

[Cross-posted with WTF]

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