Report Shows Facebook Users Share More Once They Go Private
March 7, 2013

Report Shows Facebook Users Share More Once They Go Private

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

Over the years, people have become more cautious about the kinds of information they share with one another on social networking sites, particularly Facebook. The Menlo Park-based social giant responded to this trend and began giving users the option of which friends were able to see their posts, pictures, etc.

Now, according to a Carnegie Mellon University study, Facebook may have not only been offering a better feature to users, they may have also been trying to learn even more about them.

This new study paints a picture of a social network that was once very public, but has now become very private. Yet, while fewer people are publicly sharing, the majority of those who privately share are willing to part with more personal information about themselves.

This study followed the privacy practices of more than 5,000 Facebook users on school networks between 2005 and 2011 and found that users have always been cautious about what they share with one another on Facebook. The majority of users in the early days, between 2005 and 2009, were more likely to share general information about themselves. For instance, more people felt comfortable listing their birthdays, education background and hometown on their public profiles. These early users were excited to be part of a community, or a social group, and had little qualms with posting pictures and being generally available to the public.

As time went on and privacy scandals and concerns continued to arise, users took advantage of Facebook´s privacy tools and began blocking themselves from the public. Around the same time that more people were making their profiles private, Facebook also began giving these users an option to make even more of their information private.

The researchers found that the amount of information which could be disclosed publicly grew threefold from 2005 to 2012.

For example, Facebook allowed users to set their birthday, email address, phone number, and groups as private in 2005. In 2012, users could set even more fine-grained information about themselves as private. Instead of just address, users could list city, neighborhood or zip code as private.

However, these bits of personal data are static and do not often change. As more people were flipping the switch on their profiles to private, they also began sharing real-time and personally identifiable data about themselves through status and timeline updates. In their desire to communicate with their friends through these updates, they also began sharing more information about their current locations and other life changes, such as “Buying a house!” or “We´re pregnant!”

Along with real-time and “dynamic” updates, third parties are also collecting data about their users. For instance, Spotify instantly posts which songs the user is listening to on their profile by default. TripAdvisor gives information about the user´s vacations.

The report also mentions “incidental data,” or “what other people post about you.”

For example, when a friend tags another friend in a picture taken at a party, that friend is providing data that the user in the photo didn´t willingly part with.

Considering these factors, the study concludes that Facebookers are sharing much more about themselves these days, albeit in a more private way. According to their data, 15 percent of American adult Facebookers posted a status update every day in 2010; 22 percent commented on someone else´s posts, and 26 percent “liked” a friend´s content.

Facebook cannot explicitly do anything with this private data, of course, nor can advertisers. However, using certain bits of this information, even private information, advertisers can “microtarget” their ads based on specific sets of information. As users are providing advertisers with more of this information, it´s becoming easier to create these microtargeted ads.