Information Insecurity

I only started using FriendFeed a few months ago because other people at the Science in the 21st Century workshop were documenting the conference on it. I quickly became a fan of the service, which not only added an extra dimension to the meeting, but has also been a continuing source of interesting material from the feeds of others.

If you're not familiar with it, FriendFeed is a service that aggregates online content from other sources, and puts out a feed of all your online activity. my feed, for example, includes blog posts, links, YouTube videos, Flickr pictures, and SlideShare presentations. I haven't figured out how to link it up with Facebook, or I'd have those status messages in there as well, and I've thus far resisted Twitter, as I already have a host of ways to fritter away time on the Internet. Other people can choose to subscribe to my feed, and I subscribe to several other people's feeds, so I get to see a steady stream of links that were generated by people who are smart and interesting and move in different Internet circles than I do.

What makes FriendFeed so interesting to me is that it's an amped-up version of the thing that makes the whole Internet interesting: it's a big aggregator of interesting information. With the Internet, I have (potential) access to hundreds if not thousands of newspapers, magazines, and other information sources. With FriendFeed, I get to see a selection of those information sources that smart and interesting people found worthwhile, and can interact with them through the various commenting features. And then, of course, there's Facebook, which pulls together an astonishing amount of information about people I know in some way, and lets me keep up with their lives.

The great strength of the Internet is its ability to pull together lots of information from disparate sources, and put it all in one convenient place. Which makes it sort of amusing to me when people dive into these services, and then promptly start screaming for ways to disaggregate their aggregators.

There's really no need to dig up a link to illustrate this-- if you've been anywhere with a web browser in the last year or so, you've undoubtedly seen one of the umpty-zillion functionally identical articles written about the problems of Facebook (though if you insist on an example, Cory Doctorow's take is better than average).

These all follow the same basic arc: "I got a Facebook account, and it was cool, and then some unpleasant person "friended" me, and ohmigod, do you realize that anybody can read your information?"

I'm always a little baffled when people react with horror at the notion that vast numbers of people can access information that they put on Facebook, or a blog, or any of a zillion other Web-based services. Yes, people can access your information. That's pretty much the entire point of Facebook.

I can never quite figure out the thought processes that lead to these meltdowns. People will say things like "I don't want my Aunt Sally to find out about what I did last weekend!" But if you don't want Aunt Sally to know about what you did last weekend, why are you posting it to the World Wide Web? How is it that you're fine with broadcasting your embarrassing activities on a global communications system, but only so long as your most prudish relatives don't have access?

Another common freakout takes the form "I didn't know that Corporations were going to get access to my information!" This overwrought Guardian column is an excellent example of the form.

And again, I can't quite figure out the thought processes. It's a global communications medium, and you've put your information out there. Did you think that it was just going to sit there uncollected forever? I'm not even clear what the objection to targeted advertising is-- of course I'm going to be shown ads for stuff. Where am I not bombarded by ads these days? I'd actually prefer to get ads for stuff that's halfway relevant to my interests, as opposed to the endless stream of obnoxious drug commercials that blight most of my tv viewing.

My rule for dealing with private information is simple: I don't post anything to any web-based service that I wouldn't post on the blog. And I don't put anything on the blog that I wouldn't want to appear in the New York Times. Because, at the end of the day, that's effectively what this is-- whatever goes on the blog is available to all of the people who read the Times, and then some.

This is a fairly restrictive policy, to be sure, but it avoids a lot of angst. I don't have to worry about whose "friend" requests I accept on Facebook or FriendFeed or any of the rest, because they're not getting to see anything that isn't public already. I don't have to worry that my bosses will read what I've written because... well, because I have tenure, but even so, I try to avoid putting anything up here that would get me in trouble at work.

That's not to say that I don't see the appeal of a pseudonymous blog or friends-locked LiveJournal in which I could rant at length about things that cheese me off. If nothing else, Kate would probably appreciate the break. But, really, if I had such a thing, I'd always be worried that somebody would find out about it, and then I'd be in trouble. The constant nagging worry would outweigh the benefits of occasional catharsis.

I'm always a little creeped out when, for example, Facebook tells me that somebody I barely know has updated their home telephone number, and that information has been provided to me. I don't need to know that, and I don't particularly want to know that, and I don't really understand why people put that stuff out there so casually. And there are a thousand other forms of pseudo-private over-sharing that leave me scratching my head.

Which is why what you'll find about me on Facebook and the like is pretty generic. Keeping it that way leaves me free to not worry about whether some creepy person from elementary school is going to turn up my profile, though. And I think it's worth the trade.

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You can't get your Facebook statuses to appear on friendfeed at the moment because they do not have an open API for their statuses. Facebook is a (partially) closed system, which is one of the most annoying things about it, but there are rumors that they might open up their statuses soon.

You can get *some* Facebook information to show up on friendfeed, but it's not worth bothering with unless you use Facebook to share articles. On the other hand, you can get your friendfeed stuff to show up on Facebook by installing the friendfeed app on Facebook.

In case that wasn't confusing enough, you should also take care not to set up feedback loops (e.g. sharing your friendfeed on Facebook whilst simultaneously sharing your Facebook stuff on friendfeed). Also, slightly less catastrophically, but still annoying, you need to be careful of double posting, e.g. you don't need to share your feed on Facebook if you are sharing your friendfeed and your friendfeed tracks your links already.

Remember a time web 2.0 was supposed to make the web easier?

I'll have to disagree with you Matt, you can input your Facebook status, posted items and notes into FriendFeed. Take a look here:

Also I would say that we are getting to a point where the systems are becoming smart enough not to double post stuff. For instance with FriendFeed you can tweet what you do, but FriendFeed is smart enough to not tweet at Twitter every time you personally tweet. How is that for confusing?

That being said, I think the larger problem that people have is not that the information is available to be found, it is the ease of being found. The ease at which Google and other sites index and catalog the internet is what throws most people off.

The other issue is that we have taken separate social circles and joined them. For instance both my work, college, high school, social clubs and activities friends, are friends of mine on Facebook. What happens when I want to talk about something, that I don't want work to find out about? For instance looking at changing jobs. My social groups have merged to become one. My main mode of communication is cut off. Sure I can use another mode of communication, but the point is that only 2 years ago Facebook was only open to my college friends, and not my work friends or to Google for that matter.

That's the real problem, I think you've misidentified the problem.

Well, what you are talking about is an aggregation problem in and of itself and the only solution I've found so far is manual disaggregation. For example, I might keep a Facebook account and a Friendster account and post my rants on Facebook and limit my friends list on Facebook to one limited set and Friendster to another limited set. Of course, then you often find yourself cross-posting between the two, and you get friends-of-a-friend interactions that cross social circles, but if you want to get personal and ranty on the net, then that's the best you can do.