When Facebook opened up to the general public in 2006, I was living in Jerusalem, covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Before that I’d spent two years in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. My work involved trying to gain the trust of groups of people who were sometimes out to kill each other. I was circumspect and maybe a little paranoid. I got good at compartmentalizing.
Facebook was not good at compartmentalizing. At the time, there was no way to hide your friend list from people who were not on it. Mine would have included Palestinian activists, Israeli nationalists, religious Jewish settlers (perhaps my cousins among them), and a lot of gay people on both sides. What if they could all see each other? And what if the wrong person or government got hold of my friend list? For some people I knew, just being on that list might put them at risk.
Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, offered his answer to such worries in a 2009 interview with David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect:
“You have one identity… The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”
That seemed stupid to me (and not only to me). Only someone cocooned in a temple of reasonableness like a Harvard dorm room or a Silicon Valley tech company could be so naive. Out there where I lived, it wasn’t like you could just find another job if your co-workers didn’t like the company you kept. In most places, and especially in the world’s less free countries, many have no choice: Life forces them to form ties with people from whom they must perforce keep secrets.
So I didn’t join Facebook.
One of them was personal. In June 2010, Facebook sent me an email telling me a friend had tagged me in a photo. Not just any photo: I was wearing drag at a gay pride march. In theory, since I wasn’t on Facebook, this should have been impossible. But because several people had previously sent me invitations to join Facebook, the system knew there was an entity with my name and email address. And so, even though I had exercised the ultimate opt-out, it gave me no choice in the matter. I couldn’t even untag myself, because that required logging into Facebook. I had to ask my friend to do it.
Since then, more and more prominent people have started shutting down their Facebook accounts or trimming their friend lists. They cite a lack of time, fears about privacy, Facebook’s shadowy corporate governance, or its profiteering from their data. Besides, we’ve been told, the kids are all leaving it anyway.
So why have I just joined Facebook?
There are practical reasons. I’m missing out on invitations to things. I’m losing track of what a lot of acquaintances (especially far-flung ones) are up to, and Facebook is good way to keep up those “weak ties.” There are some people with whom I want to get back in touch, and Facebook is the easiest way to find them.
But mainly it’s that I’m no longer as worried as I was about privacy. This isn’t because I think Facebook has become more benign; it still has a commercial incentive to not only encourage us but, as danah boyd has written, to trick us into exposing as much of ourselves as possible. Just a couple of months ago, for example, it emerged that making your friend list “private” doesn’t really make it private.
No, there are two reasons I’m less worried. The first is that I’ve changed, partly because I’ve now spent five years cocooned in the temple of (relative) reasonableness that is New York City, and partly because I’m older and have less patience for other people’s prejudices about who I am.
The second is that Edward Snowden’s revelations about US surveillance and the steady drumbeat of stories about hackers breaching company databases have convinced me that many of my worries are moot. We all now have to live with the assumption that our privacy can be blown apart at any moment.
Such a world is not one I’d choose to live in. It’s one in which I write every email, text or instant message with a little privacy devil sitting on my shoulder, whispering “What if this gets out?” But I don’t have a choice. Even if governments scale back their surveillance excesses and impose tighter regulations on companies that hold our data, the sheer quantity of that data—and the things that can be exposed by a security breach or even an indiscreet friend or colleague—is still huge. Google knows more about me than I myself do. LinkedIn and Twitter know a lot. Am I really protecting myself by keeping Facebook at bay?
So I’ll protect myself the way anyone should: by being careful. I won’t share or “like” much; I’ll use Facebook mostly passively. I’ll be selective about whom I friend, and I won’t friend anyone I need to protect. I’ll keep the privacy settings cranked up to the max and watch out for when Facebook quietly changes them.
And when I have to win the trust of suspicious people, I may just have to earn that trust through openness instead of by concealment. And that may not be such a bad thing.