Michael Fertik: Columbia privacy study reveals Facebook truths

April 13th, 2011

This is a post by Michael Fertik, co-author of Wild West 2.0 and CEO and founder of Reputation.com.

It should come as no surprise, but a new study from Columbia University shows that even college students have trouble setting and understanding their privacy on sites like Facebook.  The authors of the study asked 65 students at Columbia to describe how much information they wanted to share on Facebook, based on the type of information.  For example, they asked students how much information about “drinking” they wanted to share with the world.  Then, the researchers logged into Facebook and examined how much information was available.  They found that 100% (65 of 65) of students shared too much or too little information compared to what students said they wanted to share.  For example, a student’s profile would be counted as sharing too much if the student said he wanted no information about “drinking” to be available, but a status update said he was “drunk” or “hammered” or any other synonym for drinking.

It is hardly news that Facebook privacy settings are difficult to control.  But it is something new entirely when 65 of 65 students revealed different information than they intended.

Perhaps most importantly, this study recognizes that Facebook privacy settings don’t correspond with how we really view the world.  The students in this study wanted to reveal (or hide) information based on the subject and implications of the information: whether it shows them as drinking, studying, relaxing, or interacting.  But Facebook’s current privacy controls are based on the method of transmission: all photos, or all status updates.  A better privacy model would allow users to display all information about studying to the world, but show information about partying only to friends. 

My takeaway: If  Ivy League college students can’t set their Facebook privacy controls properly, what hope is there for the rest of us?

– Michael Fertik

The views expressed here are those of the author alone and not those of his employers, clients, or any other person.