Current research suggests the average person uses Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) primarily to engage with people with whom they share some standing relationship. This is consistent with Facebook's own manifesto that states Facebook is for friends. The question is, what constitutes "Friendship"?
As part of a research project I'm conducting on the Gold Coast in Australia that seeks to understand how young people are using social network sites, this issue of Friendship (capital F to denote the Facebook usage of the term) is a central concern. On Facebook, Friendship describes a vast array of relationships: family, colleagues, clients, lovers (past and present), and a litany of long lost school chums. This is clearly a different version of friendship from what we traditionally have understood the term to mean.
Once you begin to treat friends as a sort of audience, the issue of privacy seems trivial. You’ll share content (pictures, updates, wall posts) based on what is appropriate in what context. Of course, the problem is that there is no one context or singular audience we’re pursuing. Our audience is diverse, and what may interest (or amuse) one of our Friends might well offend another. The young people in my qualitative study are, contrary to popular discourse, extremely sensitive to this tension and the inherent risks involved.
For example, one 19-year-old participant, let’s call her "Charlotte" (participants are de-identified for ethical reasons), explained that she was extremely conscious about her online privacy and had always been careful to Friend (as a verb) only people she was familiar and in regular contact with, restricting all profile information to Friends. After using Facebook for a few years, however, inevitably Charlotte had met and Friended many people she no longer had contact with. To resolve this potential gap in her privacy net, Charlotte conducted what she calls a "Friendship cull," essentially going through her list of Facebook Friends and deleting ones that she no longer had regular contact with.
Another user, 21-year-old "Debra," explained that she keeps her MySpace and Facebook profiles public but doesn’t divulge any sensitive information. What constitutes sensitive information, however, is open to debate. Despite this public strategy, Debra is very stringent when it comes to making or accepting Friend requests, and only Friends people with whom she shares a meaningful social relationship. In two very different ways, Charlotte and Debra are both conscious about their privacy and have strategies in place to manage what they share online and with whom they share it.
In a 2008 study published in the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, Zeynep Tufecki found that while users of social network sites were not "overly worried" about online privacy, they did -- consistent with my own research and observations -- demonstrate a complexity in managing that privacy nonetheless. It seems as though people aren't overly concerned about their privacy, because they feel they have it under control.
In one way or another, every person I’ve spoken to has some personal sense of what constitutes Friendship on a social network site. Having these strategies in place gives people a sense of practical control over their online social spaces. The fact that the data we input into these sites is being stored and used for commercial and advertising purposes doesn't worry people either -- it's almost a given.
Thus, privacy on social network sites is inherently tied up with issues like intended audience (who we think is visiting our page) and what constitutes Friendship. Privacy is much more complex than ensuring the right profile controls are managed correctly, and at the end of the day it is the individual user who is responsible for what she puts online and whom she calls Friends.
— Brady Robards, PhD candidate and lecturer in Cultural Sociology, Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia