Mercer Essay 2

One of the most popular ways to use Web 2.0 technology is the social-networking site Facebook. People who sign up to use the site can take advantage of feature which allow them to share personal information with friends and also to stay in touch. The structure and features of the site invites users to share a lot of information. This makes interaction with the site potentially very intimate. However, Facebook offers the opportunity for users to manage a virtual identity through certain tools so that not all of the personal information they share or access become a part of the public domain. When Facebook begins to change the ways that users can manage information shared about them, it decreases the level of control each user has in controlling the level of personal information shared in such a way that it poses a threat to being able to present a virtual image consistent with social norms.

This year Facebook introduced several changes to its privacy policy and the way it shares information about users with third party outlets. The concept of “instant personalization” lead to a controversy regarding the privacy issues surrounding sharing personal information and how that personal information is stored. The Electronic Privacy Information Center, along with half a dozen other consumer rights, and civil rights groups, filed a complaint against Facebook with the Federal Trade Commission in April 2010. The complaint alleges that the sites practices “violate user expectations, diminish user privacy, and contradict Facebook's own representations.” Lobbyists and think tanks are not the only groups upset by the new policies. A user survey actually finds that 95 percent of users are unhappy about the changes Facebook has made to the privacy policy and would advocate change.

Social networking sites such as Facebook and the less popular MySpace, offer users a venue to manage a virtual identity. Most people in choosing what to make a part of that identity give consideration to social norms regarding what is acceptable behavior and traits to portray on the internet for all to see and judge. The case of Stacy Snyder, a 25-year old mother of two, who became an internet celebrity as the “drunken pirate” conveys the types of rules governing what people filter in creating their virtual identity. A picture, which can be seen below, was posted on the social networking site MySpace. In the picture Snyder is drinking and appears to have had a few alcoholic beverages. At the time that the picture was posted, Snyder was in the student teaching program and was working at a high school. Once the teaching program saw the picture, they dismissed her and denied her the teaching license she had been working toward.

Snyder presents an example of how not to express oneself through the virtual identity. The reaction of the teaching program, the dismissal of a student because of the picture, sets the social norm for how young career minded professionals should portray themselves. People who want to keep their jobs have to make use of the tools Facebook and other social networking sites provide in order to manage their virtual identity in such a way that will not violate norms. Facebook offers users the option to “detag” pictures, edit one’s profile, delete poorly chosen status posts, and through privacy settings. The privacy settings allow the user to manage who can see their profile, and even who can find out that they have a profile.

As the case of Snyder shows, what comes across in the virtual identity can dictate the consequences. If Snyder had chosen to allow pictures to be posted of her that show her in settings where she is being a loving mother, or a studious student, the student teaching program would have probably considered her more apt for the job. However, because of this one picture, her real identity and life became impacted by this one picture on the social networking site which portrayed very unprofessional behavior. Managing the virtual identity is not only important in regards to professional standards for most users of social networking sites, it has also become important to manage the virtual identity of the deceased who once used these sites.

Facebook offers the option to have the profile pages of people who have died to be memorialized. Doing this allows users who have been accepted as friends to continue to write on the wall in order to express their grief or positive thoughts about the life of their lost friend. This process still affords some protection for the privacy and thus protection for the virtual and actual identity of the deceased person. Facebook will memorialize the profile page at the request of a family member but they will never issue the password and allow for a potentially unwanted violation of the privacy of the deceased.

Even though Facebook offers so many ways to manage the virtual identity, the site recently has presented challenges to the way that users can control their virtual identity through the choice of what to make public and with whom Facebook can share the information.

One of the features on Facebook that is becoming more popular is the cha feature which allows two users to instant message each other. The assumption in using this feature is that no one will be able to read the messages between two users other than the two users themselves and whomever they personally choos to share the conversation with. On Wednesday May 5, 2010 Facebook had to cu off the chat feature in order to fix a reportedly easy to exploit bug which would allow users who chose to the opportunity to read the chats their friends were having with one another.

Facebook software specialists were able to fix the bug. However, this issue raises question about what type of information Facebook has the power to share. Clearly everything that happens on Facebook, even unpublished virtual interactions, is stored and is vulnerable to privacy violations. This year Facebook introduced “instant personalization” which shares users’ information with select third party partners. Unless a Facebook user opts out of this service which shares their information with the three partner sites, Pandora, Yelp, and Microsoft’s document sharing site they lose a certain leve of control over the virtual image they present to people. In order for Facebook to more effectively use this feature, it now requires that birthday, hometown, and interests are public. The user is required to let the Facebook community know that information, and unless the user goes through a process that reportedly takes about ten minutes, that information about each user is accessible to the partner sites. Even after one goes through the process of blocking themselves from those sites obtaining their information directly, the way the software works, the companies can potentially find your information through friends who have not taken the time to secure their information. A complaint turned into the Federal Trade Commission states that this process places an unfair burden on the user. In order to maintain complete privacy from third party sites, or even those with Facebook application pages, a user must visit each site and block access.

Another challenge to the effective management of a virtual identity Facebook poses is the lack of enforcement of the data storage policy for the third party sites. Partner sites are only allowed to hold on to the information for 24 hours. However, there is very little means for enforcing this. Through the instant personalization feature, Facebook has power over the virtual identity of each user because it potentially allows for people to see personal preferences that users would prefer to personally control who has access to that information. For instance, it is not a crime for a man to listen to Miley Cyrus, however, a man might not want his coworkers to know from Facebook that he listens to that artist on his own time.

Facebook has felt the backlash from what most consider inherent privacy violations in the new feature. On Monday May 10, 2010 reports came out that Facebook has engaged in talks with former FTC commissioner Tim Muris, to convince him to help defend the company against the complaints that have been filed with the FTC.

While most of the recent changes to Facebook violate the way most American users of social networking sites conceive a right to privacy, it poses a real challenge to the ways in which users can control their virtual identity and subsequently – their true identity.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License