Why many people don’t realise what they are sharing on Facebook

Research from Google shows that even experienced users of social networks often don’t realise what they are sharing with whom.

In a presentation that has gained a great deal of attention over the past week among in the web industry, Google researcher Paul Adams talks about how we have problems translating our real world social networks of friends and colleagues on to the web.

The presentation goes on to make some sophisticated arguments about social networks, but opens with a true story that is relevant to us all. It concerns a lady called Debbie whom Paul interviewed as part of his research.

Paul shows how Debbie has several groups in her social networks. People she met when she lived in San Diego, ones she met in Los Angeles, her family and more recently kids she teaches swimming to at the local pool.

When Debbie lived in San Diego she used to enjoy going to a bar with some friends where they had wild parties. They sometimes post photos of nights out at the bar which she loves, as they remind her of her time there, and she comments on them.

During the Google research interview she realised for the first time that by commenting or liking the photos they would be seen by the kids in her swimming class. Needless to say, she was really upset.

There are two reasons that this happened to Debbie and has probably happened to all of us. First, social networks like Facebook treat all of our connections as “friends”, the same type of contact. As discussed in Me and My Web Shadow and in the recent post about privacy settings, you can set up different friend groups to control who sees what – but it is complex.

The other reason Paul discusses, is that when we post anything on the web, from status updates to photos and comments we usually do it with a particular set of people in mind, and in fact it will reach much broader group. This is why, Paul says, we get so frustrated with people posting things on Facebook that we think are deadly dull.

The obscure hobby of a colleague can be really dull to hear about for us, but they are posting it with their network of friends who are also into that hobby in mind. (I imagine some of my Facebook friends must yawn when they see me posting about yet another Sunday morning mountain bike ride, for instance.)

It is important to note that Google is trying to find a way to develop a rival service to Facebook, so criticising its service is very much in the interest of it and its employees, like Paul Adams. However, this story and the broad points made in this presentation chime with a key  message of Me and My Web Shadow: it is important to understand how privacy settings and filters work on social networks.

If you are interested in finding out more, have a look at his presentation (below). It is, by the way, an excellent example of how to create a highly useful document and share it on SlideShare – just look at how many views, comments and Tweets it has received:

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