DIGITAL SOCIOLOGY

How Much Do People Know About Their Facebook Privacy?

Mini Investigation #3: Have You Checked Your Facebook Privacy Recently?

The other day I asked my 76-year-old grandmother, (who has 8 Facebooks because she forgot her password so many times) if she knows who can see the stuff on her profile. For a moment, she grew frantic and questioned why I asked such a thing. “No one can see my Facebook!” she said.

Well, she was wrong. Like my grandmother, many Facebook users don’t know that they can change who can see specific content on your personal page. Thanks to Facebook’s specific features, users can make decisions about all sorts of information like photos (tagged or not), status updates, your friends list, etc. However, it is interesting that will all these functions, a mere 9% of social media users feel they have control over their privacy.

My personal Facebook privacy settings

So, I decided to test this data for myself and gathered and interviewed 4 people. Taking into account that they were all ardent Facebook users, I asked them the same set of questions with the goal of understanding how they saw and experienced their privacy online. The results were very interesting.

For the purpose of a variety of results, I picked two people who were digital natives like myself, or people who grew up with technology. I then chose two people who were digital non-natives. These two folks were over the age of 55.

Here is one instance recorded with participant #1, a digital native who uses Facebook primarily for career purposes.

Me: What do you know about Facebook’s privacy issues?

Participant #1: I know that there have been some controversies about Facebook and privacy but I don’t know to what extent. A lot of people are always concerned about their data being sold to companies thanks to social media or strangers seeing personal information/embarrassing photos.

Me: What do you know about your privacy on Facebook?

Participant #1: Nothing really. I think my posts are public but my personal info is private.

Me: Have you ever gone into your privacy settings and changed them? If so, what did you change them to? If not, do you want to?

Participant #1: Maybe in the past but nothing has ever really worried me enough to change the default privacy settings.

Participant #3, who was also a digital native, expressed she knew how to change her Facebook privacy settings, but had no clue about how well it worked.

This is my conversation with participant #2, a non-digital native.

Me: For what purpose do you use Facebook “ardently” for?

Participant #2: Using Facebook is important for me because I like to spy on my grandchildren. I don’t know what they are doing otherwise. I like hearing about their plays, games, awards and seeing photos of them at school. It’s easier than having to call them and making them talk to me for hours about their lives.

Me: What do you know about Facebook’s privacy issues?

Participant #2: Nothing.

Me: What do you know about your privacy on Facebook?

Participant #2: I don’t know who can see what but I know that I don’t like to post any of my personal information on Facebook because I don’t know who can see it. I believe I have a private account.

Me: Have you ever gone into your privacy settings and changed them? If so, what did you change them to? If not, do you want to?

Participant #2: No I don’t know how to do that.

The two digital non-natives had no clue how to change her Facebook settings and requested for me to change them if they were not private already. So, I took participant #2 and #4 and using Michael Zimmer’s Facebook privacy tutorial, I taught them how to change their Facebook settings.

Participant #2 was admittedly my grandmother, who at the beginning of this article, scolded me for even thinking that her Facebook wasn’t private. Funny enough, her settings were actually completely public and her content was more visible than mine.

Participant #4 had somewhat private settings and wanted to make it so her initial information (birthday, hometown, workplace, etc.) were still visible to the public. This way she could still be seen by and connect with old friends. What is interesting here is that having a “private account” consists of different things for different people.

“The question isn’t ‘What do we want to know about people?’ It is ‘What do people want to tell about themselves?”  Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook

Knowing who can see your content is important for a lot of people as there are some things we’d rather not share with a potential employer, strangers, data thieves, etc. My digital non-natives knew less about their privacy than the digital natives did, but overall they all shared the feeling of doubt when asked about Facebook’s privacy settings.

Try this for yourself at home, ask your mother, friend, colleague, or 76-year-old grandmother if they know who can see the content they share. An interesting addition could be Instagram’s privacy settings,( after all they only have one feature).

In a world where we share our information for the reward of gaining others, our privacy online is always in question, but people may breathe easier knowing they have at least some control.

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