May 26, 2010

Words Matter

One of the more remarkable things about the whole Facebook/privacy debate is how few people (and journalists) seem to have an understanding of exactly what information is being shared and why it's now out there for public consumption.

Yes, people are pissed that, as my friend Rob Saker tweeted  "My profile info was captured by X firm because FB privacy is weak." But many of them, as Danah Boyd pointed out in her keynote at SXSW this year, have no idea that things they're posting are available for public consumption, especially since they'd actually gone through the trouble of adjusting their privacy settings.

Or so they thought.

My instincts tell me that much of the noise around this is the result of how annoyed people are with Facebook's baffling user interface and how embarrassing it is to think that you've set your privacy settings correctly only to find out otherwise.

Which brings us to semantics: it seems that one of the major culprits here is people's interpretation of the word "everyone." To Facebook, that means "everyone on the internet." To many (most?) users, it means "everyone I am Facebook friends with."

Big, big difference.

Now of course there are more fundamental issues, primarily around what the default privacy setting should be. (e.g. should you have to turn privacy settings on or off.) But to the many users who thought they correctly protected themselves only to find out they'd chosen a far more inclusive "everyone" -- and that the Gap now knows they love the color red-- semantics are the crux of the issue.

We often dismiss simple word choices like that as a "six of one, half a dozen of another" type decision. But where half a billion people are involved, it becomes way more than that. Because I'm guessing if the option was  "everyone with an internet connection" versus just "everyone" the amount of personal information being shared would be considerably smaller.

Words matter.

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