Facebook, a site whose original intent was to serve as a virtual yearbook, has now morphed into a mammoth cultural phenomenon that is actively transforming the manner in which people relate to each other. These days when strangers meet in the real world and want to know more about each other the first action that they are likely to take is checking each others’ online Facebook profiles. Unfortunately, this is also the same action that companies now-a-days take when deciding on potential employees and there already are documented cases of students being suspended and even criminally charged on the basis of information posted on Facebook (Peluchette & Karl, 2008).
Although Facebook allows for a great deal of its users’ personal information to be accessible one first has to upload all that information up. This brings us to a very important question; do Facebook users even care about privacy? If they do, are they consciously aware that the information that they put up on Facebook might come back to haunt them? Previous research has shown that young adults have a calculated awareness of the social capital that having high number of Facebook friends brings about (Ellison, Stienfeld, & Lampe, 2007). Since disclosing information helps in building relationships might it be the case that Facebook users are continuously playing a sophisticated information disclosure balancing act that is unnoticeable to everyone else? Or is simply the case that Facebook users have a different definition of privacy than people whose childhood was devoid of internet?
In order to take a first stab at figuring out which of these competing hypotheses is most plausible Christofides, Muise, and Desmarais (2009), researchers at University of Guelph, Canada, conducted a straightforward study with 343 participants who were asked about the type of information they disclose on Facebook, types of pictures they upload, and types of privacy settings they use on Facebook. The participants were also given questionnaires that measured their self-esteem, need for popularity, levels of trust, and general tendency to disclose personal information. The overall goal of this study was to investigate how Facebook users control access to their information and whether or not there was some relationship between tendency to disclose information and various personality factors.
The results of the study revealed that the participants, nearly all of whom were Facebook users (97%), were very likely to disclose information about their birthday (96%), e-mail address (85%), relationship status (81%), and the name of their school and program (72%). The participants also expressed high likelihood of posting and sharing images of themselves and their friends. The participants were far less likely to share information about their home address or post pictures of them doing something that they deemed to be illegal.
The key finding of this study was the revelation that the participants were accepting of disclosing personal information on Facebook much more so than disclosing personal information in general. For Christofides, Muise, and Desmarais (2009) this result meant that there is something unique about being in Facebook environment that elicits people to disclose personal information much more so than they would otherwise. People are more likely to disclose personal information on Facebook plausibly because the need for popularity is so salient over there and being popular on Facebook means having a presence. Since having a presence signifies one posting lots of pictures, sharing personal interests, participating in discussions, and so on, being a part of the Facebook network inextricably ties one to disclosing all sorts of personal information that one would not otherwise.
Going back to the original question: do Facebook users care about their privacy? The answer is yes, they do care, just not on Facebook. There are many possible explanations about why this is the case but the general reason it all boils down to is the type of norm that is implicitly nurtured by Facebook. Just as it is the case that people find it acceptable to be half naked while at a beach but not in other public spaces because being half naked is normal on a beach, Facebook has achieved success in compelling its users towards exposing all sorts of personal information by making personal information disclosure the norm on their website.
Christofides, E., Muise, A., & Desmarais, S. (2009). Information disclosure and control on facebook: are they two sides of the same coin or two different processes? CyberPsychology & Behavior, 12, 341-345.
Ellison, N.B., Steinfeld, C., & Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of facebook “friends”: social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12.
Peluchette, J., & Karl, K. (2008). Social networking profiles: an examination of student attitudes regarding use and appropriateness of content. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 11, 95-97.