Mark Zuckerberg asserted two years ago that privacy had become obsolete. We've entered a new age, he declared, where people are willing to share more, with more people.
"People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people," Zuckerberg said in 2010. "That social norm is just something that has evolved over time."
Not so fast. There's no denying we share on social networks, posting everything from what we eat to who we're engaged to, but privacy isn't extinct or close to it.
Two new studies suggest people on Facebook are pushing back against the share-all culture and stepping up the ways they protect their personal information from strangers. It looks like private is the new public.
Researchers at Polytechnic Institute of New York University tracked the privacy settings of 1.4 million Facebook profiles belonging to New Yorkers over a 15-month period between March 2010 and June 2011. They found a "dramatic decrease in the amount of information Facebook users reveal about themselves to the general public" and the authors concluded that the users became "dramatically more private" during the period, according to their report.
Over the same period, users stepped up the frequency with which they hid personal details in their public profiles, which are visible to anyone on Facebook, a friend or otherwise. To measure this, the researchers tracked nine characteristics often included on public profiles -- "friend lists, age, high-school name and graduation year, network, relationship, gender, interested in, hometown and current city" -- and monitored whether members shared fewer details over time.
They did: People wanted less personal information shared publicly, and the share of users who hid all nine attributes from their profiles more than doubled from 12.3 percent to 33 percent between 2010 and 2011. The share of users who hid their friend lists more than tripled during the 15 months, increasing from 17.2 percent of users to 52.6 percent.
"This is a large shift, especially if we consider that Facebook changed its default settings to disclose more information during this period," the researchers noted in their report, titled "Facebook Users Have Become Much More Private: A Large-Scale Study."
The Pew Internet and American Life Project also found that social networking users are taking greater care to manage their reputations and control their privacy online.
The two-year period between 2009 and 2011 witnessed an increase in the number of people who said they had untagged photos of themselves (37 percent in 2011, up from 30 percent in 2009), deleted comments about themselves (44 percent, up from 36 percent), or unfriended individuals (63 percent, up from 56 percent).
Both studies found women were more proactive about protecting their personal information than men. Sixty-seven percent of women on social networks limit their profiles to their friends, while just 48 percent of men do the same, noted Pew.
The data used in the NYU-Poly study was collected before a few important changes to Facebook's site, including the launch of simplified, inline privacy controls in August 2011 and the launch last fall of "frictionless" apps that allow users to instantly and seamlessly broadcast any action they take on a third-party app. NYU-Poly computer science professor Keith Ross, who co-authored the study, noted that he and his colleagues are doing additional research to see whether the move toward more closed-off public profiles will continue.
Ross also predicted that as public profiles become more restricted, users may have more difficulty meeting new people or reconnecting with acquaintances.
"As people become more private in their public profiles and people are more privacy conscious, it's going to be harder for people to discover each other," said Ross.
These statistics paint social networkers as an increasingly privacy-savvy group of individuals who are concerned about who sees what details about them online and are taking steps to protect themselves.
There's an important distinction to be made between oversharing and not caring. It's true that users bombard their friends with mundane details about their snacks, runs, burps and buys. But that's when they know their audience -- not when they're addressing the world at large. We're less inclined to broadcast our status updates to strangers or reveal intimate details to the unknown, and social media companies would be wise to take note of just how far social norms have -- and haven't -- evolved.
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