I resisted joining Facebook for some time, but eventually, after my wife and friends actually created a Facebook group to get me to join, I signed up. It's been useful, a great way to find people I couldn't track down any other way online, and a means to keep up with what my friends and acquaintances are doing.
But there's been a kerfuffle recently about how Facebook treats its users' privacy. Some history is useful here. Facebook started out in 2004 as a service only for college students, and was set up to keep things largely private, with updates confined to friends or people at the same school. That has changed radically in the six years since, not only as the site expanded to let anyone join, but as its privacy policies and settings became both increasingly complex and, by default, less private.
Facebook's interests vs. yours
That's the heart of the problem. As the company has tried to figure out how to make money and grow, it has frequently changed its policies and settings unilaterally, without adequately informing Facebook users—and usually making those users' information more widely available than they previously wanted. Getting that privacy back usually involves some heavy spelunking through a maze of confusing checkboxes and drop-down lists, just to get back to some semblance of the settings you had before. If you can even get there.
That doesn't matter much to me personally. On this website and elsewhere, I've generally treated anything that's online as fully public, and I've done the same with Facebook since I joined. I also consider it a temporary and ephemeral service: I'm completely prepared for Facebook to shut down or disappear or eat the information I've put into it at any time—or for people to stop using it, so it loses its value. (Remember CompuServe, The Source, AvantGo, Friendster, Orkut, Jaiku, ICQ, or FriendFeed? No? My point exactly.)
But many, perhaps most, people don't treat Facebook that way. (And something like 5% of the Earth's entire population is on Facebook, so that's a lot of people.) There are many ostensibly private conversations and updates on the service that aren't actually private, or that used to be but have become public without their participants' knowledge. Some of them can be a tad embarrassing. (Not to mention revealing atrocious grammar and spelling.)
It seems clear that the people running Facebook don't have great concern for their users' privacy, and likely can't be trusted to make decisions in their users' best interests most of the time. If you want to continue using Facebook, I suggest you do so with that in the back of your mind. Assume anything you post (including personal messages, photos, and videos) could:
- become public
- be passed or sold to another organization
- be deleted or altered
All without your knowledge or consent, at any time. And there could be security breaches too, entirely aside from what Facebook exposes intentionally.
What to do?
If that doesn't really bother you, go ahead and keep using Facebook as-is, and maybe tweak some settings.
UPDATE: You might want to check out the Reclaim Privacy tool, which works as a browser bookmark and can automatically scan your Facebook privacy settings anytime and help you secure them better with just a few clicks. I just used it, and plan to re-scan periodically in case Facebook changes things without notice again.
If, on the other hand, Facebook's recent privacy changes do bother you, then you have some options, in increasing order of drasticness:
- Turn off the most egregiously data-sharing aspects of Facebook, like Instant Personalization and the ability of your friends to make public information that you might not want them to. Here's how.
- Create an absolutely minimalist Facebook profile that lets you do what you want to do, while revealing as little as you possibly can about yourself and your activities. Here's how.
- Delete your Facebook account completely and stop using the site. (That goes beyond simply "disabling" your account, which is the first option Facebook offers you, and which doesn't delete anything.) Here's how, with the key "delete" page being this one.
I've only gone as far as step 1, which is comfortable for me. I'd prefer to be somewhat in control of when websites send my information back and forth among themselves. Check out the other alternatives and see what feels best for you.