The Unsocial Network: Privacy Is Staging a Comeback on Facebook

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In a stark reversal from how people used to use the social network, more than half of users in a recent study had hidden their friends lists from public view.

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Facebook users have dramatically altered their behavior in recent years to make their profiles less public, according to a study presented last week at the 4th IEEE International Workshop on Security and Social Networking.

In March 2010, only 17.2 percent of users hid their friends list. By June 2011, more than half (52.6 percent) did so. Researchers at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University got their data by crawling 1.4 million Facebook profiles from New York City two times, 15 months apart. Then they checked to see how people's behavior on the site had changed during that interval.

The move to privacy was not quite evenly distributed across the populations. "We have found that women tend to be more private than men, and that young and middle aged people tend to be more private than older users," the researchers explain. "We have found that people living in the wealthier boroughs and in boroughs with more US-born users tend to be more privacy conscious."

One small point to highlight regarding our continuing series, Kids Are Not As Dumb About the Online World As You Assume: younger people employ Facebook's privacy controls to a greater degree.

But there's a larger point to take from this study. Social networks can change rapidly when users decide to start behaving in different ways. While Facebook's design certainly encourages certain types of behaviors, users can exert substantial control over their experiences and in so doing, reshape Facebook itself. In the scheme of technological systems, users have far more control over their experience of Facebook than they do over their interactions with broadband service providers or electrical grid operators. On Facebook, to change the way one uses the service is to change the service itself. And that's exactly what's happening as users get more sophisticated about their privacy. A Facebook page used to be a sort of personal homepage for everyone on the web; now, that way of using the service is in steep decline.


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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