Thoughts on Systems

Emil Sit

A Tale of Facebook: Privacy and Community

New year’s day was my 98th birthday, at least according to my Facebook profile. It was a good day to learn a lesson about privacy and community.

For a long time, I simply ignored Facebook’s requirement that you enter your birthday “as a security measure.” How can Facebook knowing your birthday make anyone more secure? Perhaps it is related to the Child Online Protection Act (which is of questionable constitutionality). Or for use as some sort of poor verifier in case of a forgotten password? I remain skeptical; I try to only put information on Facebook that can be found elsewhere which would preclude putting my birthday on there. Information incontinence and identity theft are bad enough without entrusting additional parties with any personal information, much less one with Facebook’s terrible privacy record.

However, someone at Facebook obviously takes age information very seriously and a new feature in December asked for my birthday in a content-obscuring pop-up. So, I entered a fake birthday with the intention of simply hiding it afterward. Unfortunately, Facebook does not allow you to change basic profile preferences, including hiding your birthday, if it deems your birthday to be fake. You are not allowed to change your birth year without engaging customer support, despite the fact that it keeps insisting that you enter a real birthday without reference to its customer support policy. (Oddly, it thinks any birth date in 1910 is fake—though they offer 1910 as possible birth year, they don’t believe that anyone born that year (e.g., grandmothers) could possibly want to use Facebook.)

As a result of this mix-up, I spent much of yesterday receiving wall posts and e-mails from wonderful friends offering me new years and birthday wishes (though some were rightly somewhat suspicious). Though Facebook reminders are not quite the same as people remembering your birthday themselves, it is still a nice gesture to receive and I appreciated every one. With some embarrassment, I wrote back to them to explain the situation.

Some improved design on Facebook’s part could have helped avoid my embarrassment—a clearer explanation of their “requirements”, a more unified and logical handling of birthday verification, or simply displaying people’s upcoming age in the birthday notification area (e.g., “Emil Sit is turning 98 tomorrow”). Design notwithstanding, Facebook raises difficult privacy and usage questions (the subject of much research). But it also provides surprising utility. So, until they (and I) figure out how best to manage online social interactions, such mistakes will happen. For those of you who were misled about my age, I apologize. Happy new year!

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