Several years ago, my mom decided to move from Grand Forks, North Dakota — a city of 50,000 — to Lakota, North Dakota — a town of about 700 people. She had grown up in small towns and had no desire to return to one. But Lakota happened to be the midway point between her job in Grand Forks and my stepfather’s new job in Minnewaukan. So my mom began house hunting.
At one house, the owner was watching television. But the show didn’t look like a regular television program. It seemed almost like a home video. My mom asked the woman what she was watching. She replied, “Oh, that’s the camera down on Main Street.” Lakota, North Dakota, has a video camera planted at one end of Main Street. The footage from that camera ends up on TV, allowing residents to get a real-time, birds-eye view of the town’s tiny business district. No lie.
Why on earth would anyone want to watch what’s happening on Main Street? Because we are natural-born voyeurs. Given the opportunity to peer into others lives, most of us will grab the binoculars rather than closing the shades.
Facebook, like Lakota’s Main Street camera, encourages our voyeuristic tendencies. “People can peruse the profiles of various users, read about other users’ interests, read their friends’ comments on their walls or view their friends. People can even scroll through a user’s photo albums and see all of the pictures that that user has uploaded of themselves and all of the pictures that other users have uploaded with that user in it. Profiles can link to other, sometimes more personal, Web sites about the user. Some profiles link to other photo albums or to online journals,” wrote Brett Bumgarner in a 2007 study. Dozens of my Facebook “friends” are high school classmates I haven’t spoken to since graduation. I friended them to be polite. But that doesn’t explain why I read their status updates and flip through pictures of their kids’ little league games. Facebook has turned me into a busybody. I am the homeowner watching the Main Street camera channel.
Of course, the voyeurs wouldn’t congregate if there weren’t something to see. Bumgarner puts it this way: “Voyeurism wouldn’t be possible without the existence of exhibitionism, or self–disclosure.” Facebook makes sharing incredibly easy. Almost too easy. And too much sharing can backfire. We have all heard stories about people who have been fired for something they posted on Facebook.
The average Facebook user has 130 “friends,” and it seems a safe bet that not all of those “friendships” are close relationships. My Facebook friend group, for example, is an eclectic mix of actual friends, relatives, casual acquaintances, ex-boyfriends, other science writers, Peace Corps buddies, former classmates, and editors. Given the diversity of that group, I have three options when it comes to sharing: 1. Post only G-rated information/photos that I don’t mind sharing with anyone and everyone. 2. Adopt a devil-may-care attitude and share whatever I want without worrying who will see it. 3. Or divide my diverse list into different groups so that I can selectively share.
I mostly practice option one. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg would like to see everyone embrace the second option. “Our mission at Facebook is to help make the world more open and connected,” he wrote in an open letter last year.
Smitha Ballyamanda, a woman I profiled in the June issue of IEEE Spectrum, has chosen the third option. She has grouped her nearly 500 friends according to an elaborate hierarchy. Her frenemies are in a group called Zero Trust along with her traditional older relatives. They have the least access to her profile. Her best friends are in a group called the Inner Circle. They can see anything Ballyamanda posts. The bulk of Ballyamanda’s “friends” reside in a group called The Paparazzi. The group includes people like “my best friend from second grade or someone I met through a friend,” Ballyamanda told me. The Paparazzi can see more than Zero Trust, but far less than the Inner Circle. “They’re looking at [my page] just for entertainment purposes,” she said. Ballyamanda devised this system after a stalker hacked into her email and Facebook accounts and hijacked them. The incident left her exceedingly wary, but she didn’t want to forgo Facebook altogether. So she came up with a way to have her cake and eat it too — sort of.
But how many people would be willing to develop a hierarchy like Ballyamanda’s? Not everyone shares her privacy concerns. When I asked my 22-year-old cousin for her mailing address, she posted it on my Facebook wall, where all my “friends” could see it. I sent her a private message reminding her that she might want to be careful with her personal information. But she didn’t share my concern. “The only people who can see what I write on your wall is you, your friends, me and my friends, so it doesn’t really bother me,” she wrote back. Another college-age cousin has posted dozens of drinking pictures. In some she is visibly drunk. And I recently learned from my news feed that a classmate I haven’t spoken with in years is devastated to find that she can’t have children. Did she mean to tell me that, or did she simply post without thinking?
So it seems Zuckerberg’s wish for more openness may be coming true. But instead of feeling more connected, I feel alarmed. What happens when my beer-chugging cousin starts looking for jobs? Sure, she can take the pictures down—all 500 of them—but Facebook keeps them archived, no doubt. And with Facebook’s new facial recognition software, her name could be forever tied to those wild college nights. Then again, maybe I’m being overly cautious. I can never decide whether I’m being prudent or a prude.
Image credit: gerlos on Flickr