Facebook's announcement last week that it passed the 500 million mark reminded me that the concept of a "face book" is not unique to Facebook.com.
Long before computers and the Internet, the term was used to describe printed books that included pictures and brief descriptions of students. I've read that founder Mark Zuckerberg's high school, Phillips Exeter Academy, had a printed publication called "The Photo Address Book," which students referred to as "The Face Book."
My children's elementary school didn't have a face book but it did have a printed student directory. And probably because it was in print, and not online, I never heard parents express concern about the possible negative implications of having a printed book with the names, addresses and phone numbers of young children and their parents. Perhaps that was because we all appreciated how the book made it easy for us to reach other families who were part of our school "network," or maybe it was because we weren't quite so sensitive about privacy issues back then.
While Facebook.com might not look much like those original photo books and directories, it does help us find and communicate with people who share a common bond. Indeed, based on "friend" requests I've received on Facebook from former classmates in college, high school and even elementary school, it truly is a replacement for that old printed "face book." It's also starting to replace those venerable high school yearbooks, and its impact on alumni inspired Time magazine, last year to run a story "How Facebook is Affecting School Reunions."
To commemorate its 500 millionth member, Facebook launched "Facebook Stories," where members are encouraged to share their experiences. Although it's clearly a self-serving move on the part of the company, it's nevertheless a revealing glimpse into how people are using the service to connect. Stories are organized by location and by theme, including crime fighting, grief, movements, pets, causes, lost and found, religion, natural disasters and, of course, love. Kevin's story is not uncommon: "Because of Facebook I found my long lost crush since grade 4 "... now I'm 23 years old. She's now my girlfriend and soon to be wife."
Look at Privacy from Both Sides Now
My guess is that Kevin was able to find his long-lost crush because she made at least a little personal information available either to everyone with access to Facebook or to friends of friends. I say this because Facebook has received a lot of negative publicity (including from me) about its privacy policies, which, by default, expose some personal information to everyone.
While I understand why a lot of people object to these defaults (I have argued that the disclosure of most personal information should be opt-in rather than opt-out), I can also see the other side to this. The default settings that disclose users' photos, posts, bios and family connections makes it easier for people like Kevin to make sure that the 23-year-old woman he found on Facebook is the same person as that fourth-grader he once fancied. This is especially the case for people with common names.
I met my wife a long time ago by one of the old-fashioned methods -- at work. But I've certainly unearthed a lot of old friends on Facebook. In many cases, we found each other because we were "friends of friends." For example, someone I worked with in the late '70s "friended" me last year, and once I accepted him as a friend, I started browsing through his friends and came across a number of people we knew in common.
As a result of this one friend, I ended up "friending" several of our mutual friends and -- two weeks ago -- my wife and I spent the night on Cape Cod with one of them and her husband. I had posted a note on my profile that I was visiting Cape Cod and because she had access to my "news feed," she knew I was nearby and sent me a message inviting us to stay with them.
That little reunion on the Cape would never have happened if my friend and I had maximum privacy settings turned on. We would have never found each other had either of us restricted our basic information to "friends" only. And had I used the "customize" feature to further restrict access to my news feed, she might never might have known I was on the Cape.
None of this is to suggest that watchdog groups and public officials shouldn't continue to scrutinize Facebook's privacy policies, or that people should uncritically accept Facebook's default privacy settings. I think it makes sense to look at your settings periodically and think about what you want to expose and to whom. To that end, I created a tutorial on Facebook privacy that you can view at connectsafely.org/facebook.
Disclosure: Facebook is a supporter of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit Internet safety organization where I serve as co-director.
This article originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News