internet privacy

Things I think I know about Facebook

Facebook is difficult to do right because it’s a new form of interaction, and it keeps changing. it’s a weird new ambiguous social space. There aren’t clear rules for it, and it’s messing up some social rules that used to exist. 

So there isn’t really one right approach. But here are some principles that I think have merit:

Post things that you feel like saying which your friends might want to hear about, or which your friends might leave comments you want to hear:

  • For instance, pictures of your trip to Chicago
  • A status saying that the flowers are awesome today
  • Or a link to an interesting news article
  • Or a joke
  • Or life things like getting a new job, or a relationship, or things of that nature
  • Or a crowd-sourcing question. For instance “does anyone know of a good place in Some Town to entertain two 10 year olds for a couple of hours?” or “What are some books about hamsters?”

The thing you’re posting about doesn’t have to be important.  

Don’t post things you don’t want others to see:

  • For instance, venting on Facebook tends to backfire. If you aren’t going to want something to be visible once you’re not mad anymore, don’t post it.
  • Don’t post anything that’s seriously private, either, no matter what your privacy settings are. If something is on Facebook, other people will treat it as public information
  • If you took pictures of people while you were drunk, or while they were drunk, think twice about posting those pictures to Facebook. At minimum, wait and see if you still think it is a good idea to post the pictures after everyone sobers up
  • It’s generally a bad idea to post anything sexually explicit. Too many people who it’d be better not to discuss sex with will see it.

Protect other people’s safety and privacy:

  • Be careful to avoid outing people. Someone may be out in every context you know them in, but not out to everyone who can see them on Facebook.
  • For instance, someone who is absolutely flamingly gay and out to everyone you know might not be out to his parents, and mentioning on Facebook that he’s gay could cause him problems
  • Similarly, someone who is obviously and openly autistic in every context you’ve encountered them in might not have disclosed this to their school, and might be in danger of being discriminated against if their teachers see pictures of them at an autistic event.
  • If someone’s in a stigmatized group, don’t reference it on Facebook unless they themselves regularly reference it on Facebook or have told you it’s ok to do so

Keep in mind the limits of Facebook as a forum

  • When you post a status, any of your friends who can see it can comment on it
  • This means that anyone can jump in at any time
  • Which means that one guy who tends to ruin conversations is likely to jump in and do so
  • This becomes increasingly likely when you post more controversial things
  • This is especially true when you’re commenting on someone else’s posts. Your perfectly lovely friend may well have some friends who you’d never tolerate socially, but who can comment on their status in ways that bother you.
  • This means that Facebook tends not to be a good kind of forum for extended public discussion
  • Which doesn’t mean don’t ever discuss things on Facebook - doing so can be worthwhile. But you’ll be happier if you stay aware of the inherit limits and don’t expect more than is likely to be possible on Facebook

Facebook is useful for keeping track of events

  • If you want to invite people to something, it can be easier to make a Facebook event than to track down everyone’s contact information and keep track of who has said they are going
  • For this reason, if people want to invite you to something, they’re going to look for you on Facebook
  • This is a reason to have a Facebook account, and to be friends with people who you socialize with in contexts that Facebook events are useful for

Being on Facebook doesn’t mean you owe everyone in the world your attention:

  • You don’t have to check Facebook regularly
  • You don’t have to be friends with anyone you don’t want to be friends with
  • If you want to be someone’s friend (because of mutual events, or to avoid offending them, or some other reason), but you don’t want to pay attention to them, you can hide them from your news feed. Hiding people whose posts annoy you makes Facebook a lot more pleasant and useable.
  • Sooner or later, you’re probably going to have to block someone. There are always people in life who don’t respect boundaries, and you’re allowed to have them anyway and use technology to enforce them.

Some Facebook features that I don’t see the point of:

  • Walls. Walls used to matter before there was a news feed, but I don’t understand what they’re for anymore. It seems to me that they don’t really accomplish anything, but do create ways to make people feel uncomfortable
  • Pokes. They basically just don’t do anything anymore
  • Questions: I just don’t get what this is for.

Privacy on the Internet

Can you blog post on safety on internet, facebook and privacy, etc?


To an extent, no, I can’t. I don’t know very much about what to do about privacy and safety on the internet.  

I don’t know very much about that, because no one knows very much about that, yet.

What I do know is that some of the rules people say to follow are wrong, and aren’t actually followed by anyone. They’re complicated, and somewhat separate, so I’m going to talk about privacy first.

People will tell you that you things like this about privacy:

  • Never put anything personal on Facebook
  • Don’t have conversations on Twitter
  • You shouldn’t have a blog unless it’s professional and polished and uncontroversial.
  • Never write anything in an email that you wouldn’t want on the cover of the New York Times

And it’s true that if you don’t do any of these things, you probably won’t have internet-related privacy problems. But that doesn’t make this good advice – this advice mostly boils down to “never use the Internet for anything but reading things and sending trivial emails”. And that is isolating; it means cutting yourself off from conversations that happen on the internet. And, more and more, it means cutting yourself off from a good percentage of worthwhile conversations that happen *anywhere*. That’s not actually a good idea.

Advice that amounts to never use the internet is kind of like saying that if you want to avoid car crashes, you should never get into a car. That’s true, but useless.

I don’t know a good solution to this. No one does, not yet.

Here are some things I think I do know about privacy

  • Pseudonyms can provide a measure of privacy by preventing things from coming up when someone googles your name. This is good enough for many purposes.
  • Pseudonyms are risky because they can make you feel safer than you really are. They’re not very good protection for serious secrets.
  • Sometimes you have to rely on them to discuss things anyway, because sometimes there is just no other viable way to have a conversation that needs to happen. But it is a serious risk, and in the long term, it’s fairly likely that people will figure out who you are.
  • If you’re violating a serious taboo, use Tor. 
  • If you’re using a pseudonym for something, make sure you’re not also using that username for something publicly linked to your real name. (For instance: People get unmasked all the time because they use the same username for OkCupid or Twitter as for their anonymous writing).
  • It’s probably a bad idea to put a link to something you wrote anonymously on Facebook. People who know you are likely to be able to figure it out. Even if them knowing isn’t a problem, they might comment in ways that make it obvious to the people you need to conceal this from.
  • Not all email lists are created equal. Some post their archives publicly in ways that can be googled; others don’t. Make sure you know which kind of email list you’re on, and post accordingly.
  • Be aware that most chat programs keep records of conversations, and consider whether the person you are talking to can be trusted not to share them (whether intentionally or by accident).
  • Use good passwords for your accounts, and don’t tell them to anyone. This comic has a good explanation of how to select good memorable password.