Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Facebook: Behind the Scenes

On January 11, 2010, the online magazine Rumpus.net, published a very interesting interview with an anonymous Facebook employee. The employee, a veteran of the company, appears very knowledgeable about both the technology used to power Facebook as well as the policy decision made by management that govern the site.
The Rumpus: On your servers, do you save everything ever entered into Facebook at any time, whether or not it’s been deleted, untagged, and so forth?

Facebook Employee: That is essentially correct at this moment. The only reason we’re changing that is for performance reasons. When you make any sort of interaction on Facebook — upload a photo, click on somebody’s profile, update your status, change your profile information —

Rumpus: When you say “click on somebody’s profile,” you mean you save our viewing history?

Employee: That’s right. How do you think we know who your best friends are? But that’s public knowledge; we’ve explicitly stated that we record that. If you look in your type-ahead search, and you press “A,” or just one letter, a list of your best friends shows up. It’s no longer organized alphabetically, but by the person you interact with most, your “best friends,” or at least those whom we have concluded you are best friends with.
The entire interview provides an interesting look at how Facebook values its user privacy.

4 comments:

Deven said...

Facebook privacy settings certainly seem to be all the buzz in today's news. The Rumpus.net article Ned posted interested me because of the increased internal monitoring within Facebook. Basically, Facebook uses frequency of viewing history to figure out who our best friends are. Facebook shows its vigor in invading its consumer information in this way. While most will probably react positively ("Facebook makes it convenient to find my favorite friends!"), the slightly creepy fact that Facebook knows who one's friends are could be overlooked.
I couldn't help but comment on this post after reading an informative article from the January 20th, 2010 New York Times, entitled The 3 Facebook Settings Every User Should Check Now by Sarah Perez. First, there's now a button beneath the status update field that lets you select who can view any particular update, but the new Facebook default for this setting is "Everyone", including search engines, depending on your search settings. Perex also suggests Facebook users double-check their default settings for their personal information sharing and search engine sharing. I found the point that "any setting besides 'Only Friends' is just that - a stranger" novel. Facebook makes "Friends of Friends" sounds harmless, even though "it refers to everyone your friends have added as friends, a large group containing hundreds if not thousands of people you don't know". Scary!

It's exciting to watch the concepts broken down in Solove's "Conceptualizing Privacy" article, especially in the section on privacy having to do with the right to control over personal information. At least our class and frequent NY Times readers will be informed about Facebook's changes in privacy, but a viral awareness of the default settings needs spreading to all!

Oliver M Silsby said...

In class you said: Privacy is dead. If it wasn't before it should be now. Even though our private information is all over the internet, it came with the understanding that other users could anonymously peruse it (a.k.a. stalk). However, this supposed bastion of confidentiality proves, no matter what you do on the internet, that it is not private. This offends me, which is odd. I am ok with willingly displaying personal, maybe even intimate, information on the web; however, it is offensive to think that, against my will, my Facebooking stalking is stalked – and I’ll be the first to admit that, yes, I am on Facebook way too much. Does this mean that the hunter is hunted? That does not seem fair. It seems unnatural. Now I know how all those lions feel as they hunt savannah gazelle while National Geographic films them. It is understood that when we create a Facebook account we sign a contract stating that we understand that all our information will be categorized and stored. In addition, this article reveals that we also are subject to the categorization and storage of our actions on Facebook. It is not so much a surprise as it is an affront. Ok, fine, display specific advertisements based on my relationship status, gender, and age. I can live with “Zoo World” and “AT&T” sending flashing, subliminal messages on my sidebar. But please, no matter what you do Mark Zuckerberg, do not stalk how many times I’ve gone through that Christmas-break photo album.

Marisa said...

As one who is overzealously private at times and has untagged her share of embarrassing photos before finally setting all my pictures to private, the fact that they're still out there is kind of creepy. Deven's mention of how many people are 'friends of friends' really resounded - as part of my fellowship we're exploring LinkedIn, and as my advisor excitedly told us about the thousands of 'connections' his connections are connected to, it sounds like the world is pretty small. Even on Fbook it's strange to get a friend request and see a slew of mutual friends you never expected, especially that random kid from a model UN conference back in the day. This article (http://www.nytimes.com/external/readwriteweb/2009/09/16/16readwriteweb-5-easy-steps-to-stay-safe-and-private-on-fac-6393.html?em) provided a few more pointers that I found helpful, and on that note I'm off to double check my privacy settings and purge my friendlist!

Matt said...

This reminds me of a topic that I was going to bring up in class today, but never got around too. Facebook claims that they 'inform the user' of their policy of using the frequency of viewing history to sort friends but I myself (along with the majority of people I would assume) never knew about this.
I use a multi-messenger program called Digsby (for aim, google talk, msn, etc.). Recently it was discovered that but installing Digsby and not reading the fine print at the bottom of each page, you were entering into an agreement that allowed Digsby to use the processing power of your computer (only when you were idle) to conduct various forms of research. I was shocked when I found out about this -- there was an options setting to disable this, but it was hidden among the setup menus.
Soon after, this became public knowledge, and Digsby released an apology for not making this easier to comprehend -- now when you install Digsby explicitly asks you if you want to allow or deny their research.
It is interesting to me that many other programs or online services try to 'force' you into using a certain product or feature without fully disclosing the details to the user. For example, many programs ask you to install a toolbar or a search engine, but are very discrete about the way in which they phrase it so as to slip by the everyday user. It goes to show that you just have to be plain careful when installing any programs or releasing any knowledge to anyone, regardless of whether you think it is entirely safe. And always read the fine print.