Guest blogger Elizabeth Winkler reports from the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSWi):
SXSWi is a conference that brings together some of the brightest minds in emerging technology. After attending, numerous panels and a keynote speech, it is clear that the tech community is concerned about privacy. We often hear that “privacy is dead,” but not at SXSWi.
We have become increasingly more open about what we are willing to share with our friends and the world. Through social networks like Twitter and Facebook we may share what we’re reading or where we had breakfast, but do we know what is, and what is not made public? During her opening remarks, Microsoft social media researcher danah boyd said “privacy is about control.” In practice, taking control of your privacy on social networks isn't easy.
"Just because something is publicly accessible does not mean people want it to be publicized." -- danah boyd
As the third most visited site on the web, Facebook has a user base that no longer consists only of Internet-savvy college students. With varying levels of experience using social networks, it's easy to see how many could be confused by Facebook's recommended privacy settings—does everyone mean "everyone in my network of friends," or "everyone with an Internet connection?" boyd's point: Companies should not expose their users to something they may not fully understand assuming that they will learn and adapt their behavior.
Facebook made changes to give users more control over who sees each piece of information in their profile—a valuable feature. As a traditionally closed network, however, the changes the company made opened up the network and provoked a backlash.
As companies work to understand customers better, they need to make a better effort to build trust and transparency. Facebook introduced a feature that creates value for users, but they botched the implementation. Had Facebook used an "opt-in" vs. "opt-out" approach, the company might have avoided an ugly public relations mess.
When it comes to privacy issues, taking the safe route and protecting users should be the default.
Elizabeth Winkler is a social media junkie and Research Associate at the Center for Research in Electronic Commerce at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. You can follow her on Twitter @lizwinks.