How much help do people need to find out personal information?
Denizens of one of the Web's most popular student hangouts are in an uproar over changes to the site that they say make their online musings much too public, turning their personal lives into a flashing billboard.
Facebook.com, a site used by more than 9 million students and some professionals, is an Internet lounge where people share photos, read one another's postings and make connections -- a kind of digital yearbook through which people find out about goings-on with their friends and on campus.
But this week the site's immense popularity backfired after it started a feature that culls fresh information users post about themselves -- Tim is now single -- and delivers it in headline-news format to their network of buddies. Facebook, of Palo Alto, Calif., unveiled the feature at midnight Monday, saying it would make new information easier to find. Within hours, online protest groups were formed and thousands of people had joined.
"I don't like it because it's kind of stalker-ish," said Yan Fu, a freshman at George Washington University, adding that he now thinks twice before posting to his page. "I think, 'Everybody can read it,' so I've avoided it."
Faces of dissent
Fu's sentiment was shared by many Facebook users, hundreds of thousands of whom have joined ad hoc groups of petitioners calling themselves "I hate the new facebook format" and "Students Against Facebook News Feed."
Such a strong reaction in defense of privacy is rare among the teen-age and twenty-something generation, which grew up in the era of public disclosure in the form of blogs, video sharing and reality television. Until now, questions about the wisdom of disclosure were raised primarily by parents, teachers and university administrators, while students flocked to Facebook and similar sites such as MySpace, Xanga and LiveJournal.
These social-networking sites have changed the way students meet and remember what they did last night -- especially as it gets easier to take and post information online or link to photos and video. For schools, the online networking phenomenon raised concerns that students' lives and escapades were being played out much more publicly with sometimes funny, sometimes embarrassing and occasionally dangerous results.
Joining Facebook requires a legitimate e-mail account at a school or business. Members can decide how private they want their profile to be by limiting access, for example, to only undergraduates, faculty or individuals.
Faced with many complaints, Facebook responded this week by posting its response on its official blog.
"Calm down. Breathe. We hear you," wrote Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chairman and chief executive.
"We're not oblivious of the Facebook groups popping up about this," Zuckerberg wrote of the protests. "... And we agree, stalking isn't cool; but being able to know what's going on in your friends' lives is."
Facebook's site already provides privacy settings that allow users to control who sees what information, he said. At the strictest setting, information would not be circulated on the news feed.