Deleting Facebook

After getting a fair amount of criticism in the mainstream press, Facebook has finally made it possible to delete a Facebook account. Prior to this, users could only “deactivate” accounts, in which case their personal information was no longer available on Facebook but was still stored on the company’s servers.

Despite much ado in the media, most of the college-age friends I’ve talked to have found the issue trivial. “Why would you even want to delete your Facebook account?” was their flippant response. Yet that is exactly why this issue is important. The fear is that because Facebook has become so ingrained in the lives of young people, it then establishes the norm for digital privacy. Unlike Beacon or News Feed, Facebook’s permanent storage of personal information doesn’t readily jump out as a violation of privacy. And because it is not obvious, it has taken over 3 years for it to change, in contrast to the much more immediate responses to Beacon and News Feed.

What is most disturbing then, is Facebook’s pattern of behavior. Although Facebook often emphasizes privacy as one of its strengths (compared to MySpace at least), its actions have proved otherwise. It has consistently pushed the limits of privacy, only step back in the face of a backlash. Perhaps it’s not so out of line to say that Facebook would not have put controls on Beacon if not for the media attention it received.

A few months ago, when Beacon was making its debut, I had the opportunity to sit in a guest lecture by Chris Kelly, the chief privacy officer of Facebook. He spoke a lot on the need to balance business decisions with PR, which the company, given its success, has done quite well. I’m inclined to believe it won’t have this type of popularity forever though. So at point will users become disenchanted with Facebook? But will this be a matter of privacy or convenience? Will Facebook have permanently changed our conceptions of privacy by then?

-Sarah Zhang