Today was a day in which you couldn't turn a corner without running into the news of the privacy issue with Facebook chat. According to a report from TechCrunch Europe, a major security flaw allowed people to view the live chats of their friends. Indeed, Facebook chat was offline much of the morning, as the company allegedly was addressing the issue.
Due to instilled security paranoia anyway, I've never been one to use Facebook chat. However, I have and continue to be a huge proponent of leveraging Facebook for networking and business. But how far does that go? And should these networking and business benefits come at the expense of sacrificing one's own privacy?
My ZDNet colleague Jason Perlow wrote a thorough piece the other day called "Contemplating Facebook Hara-Kiri." The article cataloged his challenges with Facebook, from locking down his profile to dealing with a compromised account. Perlow described in detail how he has blocked most applications, has slowly shaved friends off of his page and is going to redirect new friend requests from folks he doesn't know well to his fan page. He's even put all of this in a handy dandy advanced privacy guide.
This is something I'm struggling with as well. For someone who works in security, I was one of the worst offenders. For a long time I would add almost anyone on Facebook. Oh, you like my blog? Awesome! Wow, you follow me on Twitter? Join the fun! Seriously, you have a large sum of money you need transmitted to a bank in another country? We're golden. OK, maybe not the last one, but who knows what kind of scam I might've gotten myself into by doing this. Thankfully, this stopped over the last couple of years, but the folks I'd already added in the Facebook fold were still there.
I created a privacy group that wouldn't allow people to see certain things -- photo albums, my wall, etc. I'd already had it set to where no one could see my email addresses or phone number, so that wasn't a concern. I went through my friends list and added all of these "strangers" into this list. I gave the appearance that we were connected, but we weren't really that connected.
For some reason, I couldn't just cut the cord. I struggled with these people. I created a dedicated "Favorite Friends" feed so I didn't miss content from the folks I really knew. I worked around these issues. Even though many of them would invite me to events that weren't even in my area or send me the most annoying applications that I would have to then block, I didn't want to "unfriend" them.
I had to think about the "why." The main reason: I was afraid to come across as mean. I respect Perlow's approach as it works for him, but at the same time I've seen others handle it not so graciously. I've seen status messages with things like "I am going to unfriend you soon so become a fan of me." How pompous is that? I can't even bear the idea of creating a "Jennifer Leggio" or "Mediaphyter" page and would likely only do one if I reached 5,000 friends and hit overflow. I'm not a big enough personality to require my own page, let alone that kind of recruitment tactic. Yet, I sat there looking at all of these strangers -- many of them "friend collectors" as my friend Cathy Brooks rightly calls them -- and pictures of their babies and expressions of their religious affiliations, and I just felt out of control. Held hostage. By what? My own ego.
This might sound pathetic. OK, it should sound pathetic. It is pathetic. Even still, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am not the only one who struggles with these types of issues. I've had this discussion with many friends, both inside and outside of social media circles. There are even blog posts about the importance of integrating one's world. Yet, those posts never tell you what to do in the struggle between ego and safety. In an age where invisibility is tantamount to a career death sentence, a large network is an important claim. But at what cost?
Then the Facebook chat privacy issue exploded. Then Perlow, who I pay a lot of attention to, went on a rampage about locking down his profile. Even more so, I knew that I needed to practice what I preach. I've written countless articles about social networking and security and the importance of not engaging with people you don't trust, yet I wasn't fully doing it. Using the walled garden approach is not enough.
So, I went full throttle early this morning and cut a significant amount of "friends." As I was doing it, I started to get panicky. "What if I need to reach out to these people someday? What if they stop reading my blog?" How weird and selfish. Visibility is important, but weren't we taught as children that it's better to be a genuine friend than a fake one?
In retrospect, I'm embarrassed that I let my drive for visibility get in the way of my good common sense. It's not as if I don't know better. I could've just deleted friends and gone quietly on my way. But again, I know that this is a common struggle with people trying to build their blog presence or their careers. It's just not worth it, folks. Not with such ambiguous privacy policies, not with so many aggressive scammers and cyber criminals just waiting to fool you into friending them, and not with the future of online privacy being such an unknown entity.
At least I was smart enough to leave most of the applications alone a long time ago.