Facebook Walks the Privacy Walk, And Walks It Back -- At the Same Time

If you’ve got Facebook, who needs the NSA?

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself after reading yesterday about Facebook’s new, um, eavesdropping service, which uses the sounds of music and TV shows around you to help you share what you’re listening to or watching. Allow your Facebook mobile app to access it, and -- Shazam! (social media joke) -- it gives you the option to tell people that you’re once again on a “Breaking Bad” jag or seeing how many times in a row you can listen to “Happy” without overdosing on the sheer joy of it all.

Please note that in the very same week -- nay, on the very next day -- Facebook also said it was going to push all of its nearly 1.3 billion users to do a perhaps annual privacy check to make sure that everyone’s privacy settings are really where they want them to be. The move, per The New York Times, came about because Facebook is “responding to business pressures and longstanding concerns that its privacy settings are too complicated.” Among the other changes Facebook said it was making, the default for new users is that their posts can only be seen by friends.

Confused? I am. Does Facebook want everything about us to be known, or doesn’t it?

The answer, of course, is a crazy, muddled, “both.” From Facebook’s perspective, adding ambient sound from the entertainment world -- the new service won’t be able to analyze conversations -- has all sorts of useful data implications. It could potentially out-Nielsen Nielsen, and out-Twitter Twitter, in terms of determining who is watching what. It could also, obviously, use that data to serve up highly relevant (alternative adjective: creepy) ads based on that information.

But on the privacy issues, the fact remains that users want control, and that Facebook, perhaps grudgingly, wants users to have that, too. It would be too tempting, as a social platform, to want to know everything about every user, to become the ad targeting nirvana that many people in the industry ascribe to it.

But users who can’t figure out what they are sharing -- and with whom -- can quickly turn into unhappy users. And now Facebook has competition. The list of competing social networks offering a variety of different ways for users to interact with each other grows by the day. Some of those services are much less interested in collecting data than their forebears. The explosive growth of platforms like Snapchat has happened for a reason.

But having to serve both masters makes me wonder if, at some point in the next few years, Facebook will be a strangely bifurcated place. There will always be those who will try everything new, or who don’t give a damn if their closet love for Def Leppard comes spilling out of their smartphone and into their Newsfeed. There will be others who serve up as little about themselves as possible, lest they be stalked by come-ons from snack food advertisers in the right rail just because they deigned to visit the Doritos site once or admit they have a fondness for Cheez-Its.

But, maybe, with 1.3 billion users, Facebook is just a rather massive example of what the Internet is facing as a whole. Some of us will always go online and do whatever it is we do, and share everything, with nary a care. Those are the people that digital properties of almost every stripe want. And the rest of us? Well, if you value your personal information, then you’re not considered very valuable, are you?

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