SAN FRANCISCO -- Maybe we should stop worrying about how much privacy we have on Facebook and start worrying about how much obscurity we have.
The bottom line: We have less and less obscurity. And with Facebook rolling out search, we may soon have none at all.
"A lot of this stuff that was previously unlikely to be seen outside of a small group of people will now easily be found through search on Facebook," said Woodrow Hartzog, assistant law professor at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.
Hartzog said Facebook users may be concerned about a loss of obscurity on the giant social network as a result. He argues that obscurity – not privacy – is a more accurate way to refer to the uneasiness that Facebook users might feel as Graph Search rolls out.
The new Facebook feature allows users to unearth and sift through vast heaps of information that they and their friends have shared on the social network but never realized would suddenly become quite so visible.
"Obscurity is something which we value, but we often don’t know that we value it until it’s gone," Hartzog said.
Obscurity has been slipping away for some time as Facebook set its sights on search.
Last month, the giant social network rolled out privacy shortcuts designed to make it easier for its 1 billion plus users to understand who can see their posts and how to hide or remove posts.
Even more important, Facebook took away a privacy setting that let users hide their Timeline from people who search for it.
At the time, Facebook would not explain why it was removing the feature other than to say it was only used by a small percentage of users (i.e. millions) and that it can be confusing. (Although it did not confuse me in the least).
University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo told me in December that "preserving obscurity is the best way to protect privacy. This is an example of a company taking obscurity away.
"It feels almost as though Facebook is trying to acclimate users -- even recalcitrant ones -- to a world of personal transparency."
It doesn't get much more transparent than Graph Search.
Facebook is introducing the new feature very slowly over the coming weeks and months to avoid the wrath of users and privacy watchdogs alike.But Facebook users have grown accustomed to making these kinds of trade-offs for a long time and may find the new feature more useful than harmful. Hartzog says Facebook is shrewd to give them plenty of time to adjust.
"Any time the obscurity of people who interact socially online is stripped away, we see an initial recoil, because they haven’t had time to model their behavior around this new context of how their information will be handled," Hartzog said. "Over time, they tailor their online interactions to these new expectations."
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