Facebook is a feminist issue

Or, more to the point, Facebook’s privacy instability is a feminist issue.

[Trigger Warning: Discussion of loss of privacy and its impact on survivors of violence.]

Social media is a gamble. Unless you’re using a service such as statusnet which allows you to run and federate your own server, social media involves the placement of information about yourself, your activity and possibly your location, on someone else’s server. And for organisations like the Library of Congress to archive forever.

Facebook is probably the most cryptic and misunderstood as far as privacy goes. The chances of any given Facebook user of any demographic actually knowing what they are now signed up for? Anyone’s guess, but I’m pretty sure it’s not good odds. Even the geekiest of us get confused.

No longer do you make a choice about your own information; you now sign away information about your friends to your other friends. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has chronicled the (really quite scary) changes over the past 5 years.

Facebook Privacy Policy circa 2005:

No personal information that you submit to Thefacebook will be available to any user of the Web Site who does not belong to at least one of the groups specified by you in your privacy settings.


Current Facebook Privacy Policy, as of April 2010:

When you connect with an application or website it will have access to General Information about you. The term General Information includes your and your friends’ names, profile pictures, gender, user IDs, connections, and any content shared using the Everyone privacy setting. … The default privacy setting for certain types of information you post on Facebook is set to “everyone.” … Because it takes two to connect, your privacy settings only control who can see the connection on your profile page. If you are uncomfortable with the connection being publicly available, you should consider removing (or not making) the connection.

Matt Mckeon has drawn up another great visualization of the changes to Facebook’s privacy practices over the years as well.

The worst part is that the privileged complacency for privacy stems from on high. Zuckerberg is definitely not an ally. Why would he be? Eroding your privacy correlates with him getting richer.

Facebook is one of the most accessed websites on earth, and the demographics put women as the majority consumers. How can the privacy issues affect oppressed groups in our society that live in intimate association with their oppressors?

In a society where publishing any detail of her sexual activity online can have a woman declared to be “asking for it”, or where geo-ip can let an attacker find you, social media — especially facebook — becomes a feminist issue.

Some of us remember a few months ago when Google released its Buzz social networking thingamajig without really thinking the whole privacy aspect through properly. The outburst then led to a backflip from Google. I somehow doubt that the Big Blue Book is going to be quite as repentant as the Rainbow Borg.

30 thoughts on “Facebook is a feminist issue

  1. Meg Thornton

    Let’s not forget that Facebook don’t make it easy to delete your account details. I deleted my account earlier today (well, yesterday in my timezone) and I first had to negotiate a poorly-designed guilt trip[1] at the “deactivate” page, then actually *search the Facebook Help section to find out how to delete my account*. There isn’t a simple link to account deletion services anywhere on the main Facebook user pages. Oh, and another little wrinkle – my account data will still remain there for another 2 weeks… just in case I get all carried away and want to log into my account again. I’m not certain, but I have my queries about whether or not this is actually legal (certainly under Australian law it wouldn’t be – our privacy laws are rather solidly on the side of the public) and if so, precisely *how* legal it is.

    [1] No, I don’t believe any of the people Facebook says will “miss me” will actually notice I’ve gone, given I’ve been largely leaving my account alone for most of the past 12 – 18 months if not longer. But I have decided I’m not going back there – I loathe organisations which attempt to use guilt as a participation-maintenance tool.

    1. Brenda

      Since I deleted my facebook account only a week ago i’m already finding things I do want to participate in that are only on facebook. Political conversation, policy discussion, activists events, and campaigns. I’m wondering how many thing I can’t stop participating in, before I decide it’s worth the loss of privacy.

      this really grates, because I’m more comfortable with the privacy loss than many good people out there. It’s other people I am concerned about – those that can’t join for good reasons, and are therefore going to miss out on many things.

      FAcebook becomes a big collective of people who fit an acceptable pattern and therefore not concerned about their details being known.

      1. Dorothea Salo

        Maybe given time you’ll find other ways to be active? I hope so.

        Totally take your point about the homogeneity this will likely leave on Facebook — which won’t help Facebook overcome its problems, goodness knows.

  2. 8-bit Emma

    I deleted my account a month ago (I had a fake name).

    I wish more people would delete their accounts. Facebook does not change with/for its users and is just sickening me with this marketing thing.

    As soon as the privacy changes came into effect I was worried about the same thing in this post: victims of abuse being found.

  3. Sanguinity

    Speaking as a feminist who has learned to be very cautious about statements of our exceptionalism: people with disabilities also often live in intimate association with their oppressors. As do children, and very often elders.

    Which does not make Facebook privacy any less of a feminist issue.

    1. Melissa Post author

      I read the quote to be suggesting associations that are … a little more intimate than you seem to be referring to.

      1. Mary

        I dunno. I mean, a lot of women have sex with men, but other consensual sexual relationships can be between a privileged and less privileged person (eg, mixed race relationships and so on).

        And relationships between people and their carers might not be consensually sexual (although of course some are, some carers are life partners, etc), but there’s a lot of non-sexual physical intimacy between carers and children, especially young ones, and also between carers and some disabled people depending on the type of care needed. There’s emotional intimacy in more care for relationships still. And by that I mean both physical and emotional closeness, vulnerability and exposure, and also shared physical and emotional pleasure.

        Given all that, I think Sanguinity is right in suggesting that relationships between women and men aren’t unique in this respect, but also of course that it remains a feminist issue.

        1. Melissa Post author

          Yeah ok, fair point. I’ll take the line out so we can stop being distracted from the primary discussion.

          update: line is now morphed, hope that helps get us back to the topic at hand.

  4. James A

    danah boyd has been blogging about this for years with a focus on youth culture. Particularly relevant is just because we can, doesn’t mean we should:

    Being socially exposed is AOK when you hold a lot of privilege, when people cannot hold meaningful power over you, or when you can route around such efforts. Such is the life of most of the tech geeks living in Silicon Valley. But I spend all of my time with teenagers, one of the most vulnerable populations because of their lack of agency (let alone rights).

    Of course, teens are only one of the populations that such exposure will effect. Think about whistle blowers, women or queer folk in repressive societies, journalists, etc. The privileged often argue that society will be changed if all of those oppressed are suddenly visible. Personally, I don’t think that risking people’s lives is a good way to test this philosophy. There’s a lot to be said for being “below the radar” when you’re a marginalized person wanting to make change.

  5. Mary

    I wonder what an effective protest would look like. What do people think? Mass account deletion is an obvious one, but the social networks many people maintain through Facebook now aren’t easily replaceable, and I’m uncomfortable with suggesting people socially isolate themselves to make this point.

    1. Melissa Post author

      Honestly? I think this has to get political attention. The privacy erosion they’re undertaking is likely questionably legal in a number of places.

    2. Red Stapler

      the social networks many people maintain through Facebook now aren’t easily replaceable, and I’m uncomfortable with suggesting people socially isolate themselves to make this point.


      I left an industry last year, and Facebook is one of my few remaining ties to it. If I ever try to re-enter, it’d be easier as a Facebook connection than “that chick you met a few years ago at that trade show.”

      I know that’s what LinkedIn and Plaxo are for, but let’s face it: popular as they are, they don’t have nearly the membership of Facebook.

  6. jon

    Excellent post, Melissa. Studies consistently show that women place more value on privacy in their social network experiences (Gender Differences in Privacy-Related Measures for Young Adult Facebook Users has some good data, as do the links from Wikipedia). And there are similar patterns with other dimensions of oppression. Of course that doesn’t stop privileged white guys from attempting to impose their world view on everybody …

    And great question from Mary on what an effective protest would look like. We brainstormed this at Privacy Camp in SF last week and discussed tactics like involving celebrities and reaching out to college students (notes coming soon). The one-day boycott being planned for June 6 could be a good opportunity …

    I agree that it’s not realistic or healthy to ask people to isolate themselves from their networks; and for most people there’s currently no single alternative with anything close to Facebook’s reach. Obviously Facebook’s relying on that — just as Friendster, MySpace, and AOL have in the past. So it’s hard to know how much momentum efforts to get people to abandon Facebook will generate at this stage.

    Still, technology moves quickly — and a lot of people I talk to see privacy and respect for people’s rights as a major opportunity for those who are trying to be “the next Facebook”. I wonder, what would a feminist- and womanist-oriented social network look like?


  7. Neil in Chicago

    I would like to point out another aspect of the situation which has been mentioned tangentially above.
    This is an opportunity for coalition-building. There are other demographics who might not see any obvious connections with victims/survivors of abuse, but who could more easily be made aware of sharing serious concerns over privacy. I am a strong believer in alliances, and perhaps some constructive ones could be generated or enhanced over this.

    (edited to remove borderline blamey bits ~ Melissa)

  8. Brenda

    btw: using statusnet doesn’t mean you’ve got full control. Afterall, if it’s federated it’s then going out to other people’s servers.

    The big difference is, statusnet (and identi.ca) won’t suddenly open up all the info you uploaded privately and make it public. It’s very clear what is public and what is private.

    On facebook there’s no such guarantees, and infact they’ve taken things that were released to facebook as private person to person updates, and made them public without permission — with their CEO making statements like “if you’ve got something you want to hide you shouldn’t be doing it”….

    yes, facebook is saying that people who hide their sexual orientation, their religious beliefs, their current locations or some other personal attribute because of fear of hate or stalking and attacks are the ones who need to change themselves so they don’t have something they want to hide.. I find that attitude disgusting.

  9. Brenda

    particularly disturbing is the number of children who use facebook. Too young to understand the implication of sharing personal information about themselves, and about their friends.. facebook encourages them to share everything. This is a potential trail that will follow them for years.

    I know i have some mailing list posts on my name, back when i was much younger, that don’t represent my view today..

    Imagine the trail of facebook updates, and twitter posts, from your own self at 14 years old, being findable on the internet (and the US government’s archives) when you’re 40 years old.

    1. Rosepixie

      Yeah, I really think kids and teenagers are a big population at risk from this change and that they’re being largely overlooked because they largely get ignored. They are heavily encouraged to join Facebook and because of the restrictions on young members, many lie about their ages, which puts them at greater risk by not keeping them under that (only slightly) heavier privacy field reserved for younger members.

      Most have little understanding of the implications of all of their information being out there because many have no reason to worry about it yet – they don’t have to worry about employers checking their pages and realistically, how many kids and teens have a good understanding of the long term implications? I know I didn’t even think about if what I said in high school would still be following me in adulthood, but now we live in a world where it might.

      And they have little agency. There are adults who scream about how the precious children should be forever sheltered, but not much discussion with the kids themselves about how they actually use these tools and services. I mean, I know I was more than smart enough to have known how to get around websites that asked for parent emails for permission verification and things like that when I was a kid (not that they existed then, but still). Why would we assume that today’s kids aren’t? So we have to assume that even though there are kids following the rules and doing it right, there are kids not doing that as well. And they’re at serious risk here too.

      But this goes beyond schools checking up on kids’ “likes” and comments, it gets into issues of bullying and safety. If your connections are public and you are, say, closet gay in high school and only talk about that to people you know outside of school and on Facebook, but suddenly that information is public, that might not go so well for you at school. Or anything else. Kids pick on each other for everything. Do we really want our internet activities to be completely connected? I know I don’t want my friends seeing everything I do online right now, but it would have been even more awful an idea in high school or middle school.

      Kids have recently been triggered to commit suicide because of bullying, cyber and not. Do we really want to make that this much easier?

  10. jon

    Speaking of danah boyd, she’s weighed in with an excellent post: Facebook and “radical transparency” (a rant), including

    The battle that is underway is not a battle over the future of privacy and publicity. It’s a battle over choice and informed consent. It’s unfolding because people are being duped, tricked, coerced, and confused into doing things where they don’t understand the consequences. Facebook keeps saying that it gives users choices, but that is completely unfair. It gives users the illusion of choice and hides the details away from them “for their own good.”


    Zuckerberg and gang may think that they know what’s best for society, for individuals, but I violently disagree. I think that they know what’s best for the privileged class.


  11. Doctor Science

    I am pointing a lot of people to this post, because this is an angle that is *not* being emphasized enough in the general discussion.

    Being as generous as possible with FB, they may be using a “reasonable man” standard of privacy — where “reasonable” apparently means “as much like Zuckerberg as possible”.

    But if someone wants to have a social networking system that actually has what I’d call *generally* reasonable privacy policies, they need to use a “reasonable teenage girl” standard.

    I guess that the lifetime risk of being stalked or systematically harrassed, for a teenage girl, is probably 50% or higher — that is, at some time in the present or future course of her life, she has at least a 50:50 change of having to dodge someone persistent, creepy, and potentially dangerous. Teenage girls are also very heavy users of social media. If the default settings on your social networking site aren’t what a forward-thinking teenage girl should choose, *you’re doin’ it wrong*.

    Facebook is clearly doing it massively wrong. Unless we insist on the reasonable teenage girl standard, none of the networking sites are going to do it *right*, I fear.

  12. Mary

    See also Mark Bahnisch:

    What we are seeing now is a result of the commodification of personality which, in late capitalism, creates value for corporates. We are all unpaid labourers in the social media industry, whose lives are fodder for the accumulation of capital.

    1. Brenda

      relevant because it means no adhering to their terms of use (who reads that?) and doing something as vague as “accessing … automatic means” could result in a criminal charge, if facebook get their way.

  13. jon

    I just posted Facebook, privacy, and activism on the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy blog. (I’m co-chair of this year’s conference, and also helping to organize one of the social network activism panels.) Looking at everything that’s being written about the issue (including comments on blogs and Facebook), it sure looks to me that there’s a significant gender differences in responses.

    There are people of all genders saying “this is a problem, we should try to do something about it”. A lot of the most articulate voices are women; guys are well-represented too.

    Conversely, the vast majority of the people saying “if you don’t like it, leave” are guys.

    Funny how that works …

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