Can Facebook profiles ever really be private?

As an Internet researcher, I know the answer to this question: no. That’s right: no. Try as we might, we cannot completely control who views parts of our Facebook profiles. Using avatars and not posting an identifying photo may help ensure privacy, but in my experience, most friends use their real names or post an identifying picture, or can be identified through other friends.

I study digital literacy and teach digital literacy. Part of my research is understanding privacy and how to protect it online. Yet in the past year, I haven’t been able to sort out privacy on FB photos. I put time into this and yet, it’s still very confusing. Tonight, I chose the ‘view as’ and ‘public’ option to see how much of my relatively locked-down profile is available for public viewing. A few old profile pics and new cover photos appeared, apparently caught between the older privacy settings and new ones. If you’re reading this and thinking of the five step procedure I didn’t follow, stop. That’s my point. I’ve put a reasonable amount of time into understanding the settings and yet there I am, out for the world to see*.

It should be easier and more intuitive to safeguard my privacy if I want to.

In my online child protection research, when I’m talking to parents, most are unaware that pics they post of their kids can be viewed by friends of their friends, not just their immediate friend circle. If anyone comments on the picture, depending on settings, then their friends see the image, too. Any of us can drag friends’ pictures to our desktop and then share however we’d like.

Ok, adults struggle with the privacy settings, that might be a given. But how do we expect kids to understand the settings?

Invoke the digital natives argument if you must, that younger generations naturally understand these things better than those of us born before 1984 (see Helsper & Eynon’s articulate challenge to this argument). Or argue that kids and teens have different attitudes toward privacy than older generations. But for kids who want to safeguard against public exposure, how do they navigate the settings?

If a key recommendation for children and teens to safeguard themselves is to limit sharing photos, does FB provide the means to do so? This need for privacy is counter to Zuckerberg’s vision of living in public, of sharing more rather than less. Despite FB’s revised privacy screens, limiting sharing still seems to more challenging than necessary. For photos, it seems that each picture would need to be painstakingly tagged to limit the audience. I’ve seen advice that if you don’t want something publicly shared, don’t post it on the Internet. It seems there should be some middle ground, a very clear means of protecting privacy, not just on a per picture basis, but on the profile-level, maybe a reversal, where the default is friends of friends and then expanding the audience requires customization. Thoughts?

*Note: I share the same first and last name with a couple users, so I do have a bit of anonymity.

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