Facebook’s maybe not so useful after all


As someone who’s often asked to speak to Episcopal clergy groups about how to communicate online, I’ve been watching the rise of Facebook with real interest. At its best, Facebook is an incredible pastoral care tool. I’ve seen parishioners share a crisis online well before they or their friends and family think to call the church or otherwise alert their clergy. That information has allowed us to reach out preemptively and help people find the resources they need to prevent a bad situation from getting worse.

This was able to happen because people had a reasonable expectation that only their friends could see their information. That expectation let people be more open than they otherwise would be online.

But lately, Facebooks been making some changes to the way they curate your posted info. Wired has a long article that details the changes that began last winter – and which over the last week or two have fundamentally changed the expectation of privacy. For instance:

“Another company has an application that will collect all your updates from services around the web into a central portal — including from Facebook — after you give the site your password to log in to Facebook. Facebook is suing the company and alleging it is breaking criminal law by not complying with its terms of service.

No wonder 14 privacy groups filed a unfair-trade complaint with the FTC against Facebook on Wednesday.

Mathew Ingram at GigaOm wrote a post entitled ‘The Relationship Between Facebook and Privacy: It’s Really Complicated.’

No, that’s just wrong. The relationship is simple: Facebook thinks that your notions of privacy — meaning your ability to control information about yourself — are just plain old-fashioned. Head honcho Zuckerberg told a live audience in January that Facebook is simply responding to changes in privacy mores, not changing them — a convenient, but frankly untrue, statement.”

Read the full article here.

The article ends with a call for an open-source alternative to Facebook. Which is a neat idea, but totally unrealistic. The bandwidth and server time required for anything useful are well the resources of a volunteer group. I don’t think Wikipedia’s servers could handle the load, and they’re constantly scrambling for funds to keep that site afloat.

I think the real upshot is that those of us who want to be on Facebook, and make use of the information others provide there, are going to have to pay close attention to how we use it. When I’ve spoken with bishops about their use of Facebook, I suggest that they imagine they are wearing their miter when they sit down to use the site. It’s way of reminding themselves not to “over share”. All of us know how to be public and intentional about what we say. The illusion of intimacy and privacy on Facebook tends to entice us to saying things we wouldn’t say in front of a congregation or convention – but that’s effectively just what are all doing now on Facebook.

I’m worried about the implications of now only having the illusion of privacy and intimacy on Facebook, I’m leery about using the Facebook connector web apps which allow you to “like” a site online and then have that info broadcast everywhere. It’s because of that worry that I don’t think I’m going to install the web app on this blog. Which might impact the readership numbers, but I’m not really writing for a broad audience anyhow. (In case you haven’t figured that out… grin.)

Maybe Facebook will back off some of the changes they’re making. Maybe they will strengthen their privacy policy. Maybe not. It will probably depend on how the ‘net reacts to the changes. But until something changes, we’re all going to have to remember that what we post is not really private anymore. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing. But it’s something that I’ve seen people get into trouble when they forget…

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. There’s nothing new about privacy and oversharing. I’ve been on email lists for over a decade and the advice then still holds — don’t post anything you wouldn’t mind being taked up on the breakroom wall where you work. Facebook is, at least, an advance over email lists as you have the tools to control where your posts go. You can restrict your posts to friends or friends of friends or even to a small group that might appreciate a quirky joke.
    II’ve live art of my life online for a while now and I find Facebook is one of the better resources.

  2. Alison Geislinger says

    Well-taken, especially the suggestion you have given to bishops to imagine they have their miters on their heads WHILST(LOL) they post! All of us with public faces do well to remember that advice. Many of my colleagues stay away from social networking media in order to avoid confidentiality, privacy and boundary difficulties, but I think they miss such a valuable opportunity to communicate. As a teacher, my personal screening tool is to never post anything on Facebook or Twitter that I wouldn’t say in the hearing of my students’ parents. I also remember the 12-step adage to “practice restraint of pen and tongue” (and today, the “send” button 🙂 Alison Geislinger

  3. I agree that things are changing, but I have always been careful to assume that nothing whatsoever that I post online is truly ‘private’ or ‘confidential’, and have advised others to do the same. Even if we have full control of information that we post now, imagine how much has changed in the last 10 years of the internet. We have no idea what it will look like 10 years from now.

  4. Privacy is an illusion in the cyber age – even for those who purport not to participate. So, care in what one says in anyone’s earshot and posts is always important.

  5. Bob Zakowski says

    Privacy, in this day and age, is an illusion.

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