How powerful is the distrust of Facebook among its 900 million plus users?

A commentator who praises Facebook tries to get at why so many users are suspicious about Facebook and willing to believe rumors like the recent one that Facebook was revealing private messages on walls:

The problem is that when technologists talk about data and privacy, for many of us it is still in the abstract. For technologists and computer scientists, data is a thing that lives somewhere, it has a logic and can be parsed, made sense of, organized into databases. It can be searched and ultimately sold. But as Nathan Jurgenson, a social-media theorist, points out, for most people “data is this weird nebulous concept that somebody knows something about me, but I don’t know what they know.”…

A Democratic candidate for the Maine State Senate was attacked recently by her Republican opponent for her playing of the multiplayer online game “World of Warcraft.” According to her critics, the politician playing a “rogue orc assassin” was unbecoming. This collision of two seemingly different personalities — on the one hand, a social worker and moderate politician, and on the other, a violent assassin (online) who likes stabbing things — is what sociologists have called “role strain.”

“Identities that were cultivated in little tide pools, that were conceived to be separate, come clashing together,” says Marc A. Smith, a sociologist and social-media expert. “The issue now is that all of these other identities, the idea that we can perform them on separate stages and that they had separate audiences, that is collapsing and the sound of its collapse is the sound of people squealing.”

In his 1959 “Presentation of Self In Everyday Life,” the sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about the idea of “front stage” and “back stage.” In Goffman’s theory, when they’re “front stage,” people engage in “impression management,” choosing their clothing, speech, and adapting the way they present themselves to their audience. “Back stage” they can be more themselves, which might mean shedding their societal role. In the era of social media, Smith says that “we live in a culture where the back stage keeps disappearing.” We think the conversations we are having are in private, but, in fact, they are publicly accessible and data has a long half-life. When U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke to a select audience about the “47 percent,” he was, in fact, speaking to everyone. What happens in “World of Warcraft” doesn’t always stay in “World of Warcraft.”…

Or perhaps front stage there is a deep sense of unease about Facebook, but back stage we are not half as worried as we seem.

The suggestion here is that the world of audience segregation and impression management, where we can and do craft our actions, words, and behaviors to a particular audience, is slowly fading away. By doing more things online, these different parts of life are coming together in new ways. And I tend to agree with this journalist: there are over 900 million Facebook users, many of whom have calculated that they are willing to at least put a little information out there in return for the benefits that Facebook like keeping in touch with friends, being able to access information about others that was previously unavailable, or even acquiring the status that comes with keeping up with everyone else. A good number of users express complaints or features of Facebook that make them uneasy but relatively few are willing to give it up all together.

Indeed, we might be in the middle of a very important era where slowly individuals are thinking about and practicing new ways to present themselves and see others through mediums like Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg has expressed the goal of Facebook being a more open society where even less information on Facebook would be private, hidden, or restricted to friends. We could also look at this from the other angle: isn’t it remarkable that millions of people around the world in a span of less than 10 years have voluntarily put out information about themselves? One key might be that Facebook doesn’t force them to reveal everything; users can still practice impression management by crafting a profile. However, these are not “fake” or “untrue” profiles; rather the information is an approximation of the user’s true self.

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