I just came about the recent rumour that Facebook messages that were once private now appear as public wall posts on your Facebook timeline. The account I read mentioned the messages from 2007-2010 being exposed, but I’ve read other versions since.
I’ll admit that I freaked for a second there. I was cold sweating at least a little bit as I took to my timeline to check for embarrassing messages from yesteryear. I found none of these, although I did find a few messages that had sort of a private look to them. Exactly the type of messages, I imagine, that the investigators have concluded are simply wall posts from a time when people would post more freely on each others’ walls.
I find this fascinating from an urban legend/folklore point of view. This does not appear to be an out-and-out hoax, and I think the investigators explanation is completely credible: it’s a case of misunderstanding. But the misunderstanding turned into an effective tale nonetheless and spread quickly enough to make the Facebook executives work up a bit of a cold sweat of their own, I’m sure. I’ve heard many warnings over the years about Facebook, but this is the most immediately appealing one. It’s one thing to be told that Facebook is selling your personal information – the potential purchasers of that information are relatively abstract things or institutions so even if there’s a damaging effect to this, it’s of the long-term kind, kind of like smoking or eating junk food. When your Facebook friends can suddenly see that indulgent back-stabbing chat you had in 2009 with your friend Gossiping Gretchen, then you’re screwed right now. I can totally imagine users shutting down their Facebook accounts simply because this possibility of an incriminating glitch has now been presented to them. No wonder the story is spreading – it’s like a social horror story.
I won’t venture into a long essay about how and why such a rumour would come about at this time, obviously I am not qualified to do so. I will say, however, that I like that researchers such as Suzanne Choney acknowledge the folkloristic power of this false rumour as well as the implications of it, and I like that they take the opportunity to share a few thoughts on how our behaviour on Facebook has changed without us even noticing:
Here on the Tech team, we checked our own Facebook accounts to make sure. Indeed, older posts were showing up on our Timelines. But they were not the private emails, or direct messages, that are sent between Facebook users and are not visible to anyone else.
They were, however, a story from another time, a time when Facebook friends really were friends, and it was a smaller virtual community than it is now.
Of course, many of us shared our addresses, phone numbers and what now seem like very personal messages as wall posts because most of us a) didn’t have more than 200 “friends” like we do now and B) we didn’t know better then; Facebook was still a magical place and we were digitally naive.
Also, Facebook hadn’t yet become a behemoth, although it was on its way. In 2008, it had 100 million users. In early 2009, a headline from Mashable said: “Facebook Has 150 Million Active Users. Whoa.”
There are good reasons to be wary of what Facebook does and doesn’t do these days. Trying to navigate your own settings can be a headache; Facebook still does not make it as easy as it should. And late last year, Facebook agreed to settle federal charges that it violated users’ privacy by getting people to share more information than they agreed to when signing up for Facebook.
Most recently, Facebook’s partnership with Datalogix to work to show a direct correlation between the ads Facebook users see on the site and the products they buy is worrisome to privacy groups in the U.S.
This is probably a bigger issue right now. Those old posts? Let them serve as a reminder and cautionary tale going forward. If you are finding it annoying or upsetting to see those old posts in your Timeline, click on the pencil within the window where the messages are showing up, then select “Hide from Timeline.”
It’s like internet archeology, world wide web excavation. This false Facebook rumour exposes the fact that even just a few years back our online behaviour was markedly different, and we were more naïve. Both when it came to the commercial interests of the social network – I’m sure there’s good sense in Choney’s advice to pay more attention to the relation between Facebook ads and your online shopping habits. But also when it came to the act of simply interacting socially online, freely and carelessly. Facebook was never a safer place, we just perceived it as such, and now we’ve grown wiser. Nobody with half a mind interacts freely and carelessly on Facebook these days, what with their bosses and fathers and whathaveyou lurking about. I think twice, nay thrice, before posting even the most harmless little tidbit on Facebook, and it’s starting to feel more like work than pastime. I’ll admit that there was a brief moment when I read the above rumour that I felt a touch of relief, thinking that now I had he perfect excuse for deactivating my Facebook account, as I’ve been considering doing more and more often lately.
I don’t think I shall do that, not right now. For the time being, I find it to be an indispensable way of keeping in touch with a bunch of people that I would hate to lose, and I don’t think Facebook has outlived its purpose yet. For instance, how would I have heard of this incredible new urban legend if not through Facebook?