If you forgot about what used to pass for acceptable status updates back in the day, today brought a reminder (to you and all your “friends”) of just how uncool you were. After rumors flooded the tech blogosphere that Facebook was displaying private messages as wall posts on some Timelines–a painful example of the vagaries of real-time reporting–many users did a deep dive into their social networking history, only to come up convinced they had been violated.
However, Facebook has stated in unequivocal terms that the social network did not experience a privacy bug in conjunction with Timeline’s recent global rollout. Those deeply cringe-worthy, often embarrassing, and occasionally intimate posts that users were alarmed to discover “were older wall posts that had always been visible on the users’ profile pages,” the company insisted, and not private messages from your Facebook inbox, suddenly exposed.
On her Facebook page, Charlotte Carnevale Willner, a safety team lead of user operations at Facebook, reminded users of a time (pre-2009) when likes and comments were not part of your wall posts. “Back then, News Feed didn’t really pick up person-to-person wallposts,” she wrote. “The wall didn’t feel as public then as it does now, and the messages product was still… well… crappy.”
But let’s go back to the horse’s mouth. Today’s scandal-that-wasn’t first originated in Metro France, spreading to Italian publications like la Repubblica, with tech blogs like TechCrunch quickly picking up the story, and The Next Web and yours truly following the thread. (Facebook pointed out that France was the most recent country where its Timeline feature was rolled out. The company announced worldwide rollouts of timeline “over the next few weeks” back in December, but AllFacebook notes that the company has been unusually slow in updating profiles.)
By later this afternoon, tech blogs that initially reported on the issue had all walked back their earlier concern after Facebook offered more detail. Betabeat changed our initial headline–as well as the initial dek: “Welcome to your worst nightmare.” (Who, us? Paranoid?!) As an outside Facebook developer, who works closely with the company’s API, told Betabeat, “It’s obviously possible they fucked up. Just seems unlikely that they fucked up so badly.”
TechCrunch reporter Colleen Taylor, who helped legitimate users’ concerns, has since deleted her deeply skeptical response to Facebook’s initial, less insistent statements. “This doesn’t seem to be quite satisfactory to me, since I personally continue to see what were direct messages on both my own and my friends’ Timelines,” she wrote of Facebook’s first comments on the matter, implying that posts from Mark Zuckerberg and Dave Morin on her wall were likely personal messages. That is gone from the article and Ms. Taylor’s now confidently states, “But worry not, and make sure your friends know the truth. No private Facebook messages have leaked.”
The Next Web doesn’t seem to be quite as certain. Even after including Facebook’s more involved explanation, the blog notes, “Despite this, we’re still getting more and more reports from readers insisting their private messages sent to and from friends are appearing on their Timelines.” Gizmodo told folks to move along, no privacy scandal to see here, but commenters weren’t so sure.
Not that that proves anything. Hysteria tends to be contagious. Mix in a little short-term memory loss–would I really have negged a coworker in public? was my Timeline always this chock-a-block with ghosts of social media shames past?–and you have a vague cloud of uncertainty lingering over the whole affair. Betabeat asked Facebook whether any new content at all appeared on American users’ Timelines today and why there has been no further update on the Facebook blog about the global Timeline rollout since it was promised in December, but received the same canned statement from the company as we had earlier.
Perhaps the more telling question, however, is what does it say about perceptions of Facebook that so many quickly believed this was possible? For anyone burned by Friendster’s abrupt decision in 2005–to let anyone see the last 100 people who viewed their profile–the neural pathways for this kind of privacy outrage are already there.
But Facebook’s well-documented callousness towards’ users privacy concerns certainly puts some pressure on the trigger finger. Friendster and others set the pattern for surprise changes to your privacy settings and Facebook hasn’t given users must reason to have faith. Zuck’s rallying cry to his troops, after all, is “Move fast and break things.” Just this past Friday, Gizmodo stuck the headline “Facebook Is Now Recording Everyone You Stalk” on a post about a new feature (visibile only to the user herself for now) that shows you what–-and more to the point whom–-you’ve looked up.
It’s been well established that corporations are not your friends. But couple the staggering amounts of data we’ve voluntarily handed over to Facebook with the public company’s mandate to show a profit to their shareholders–morally upright founder letters be damned–and their increasing willingness to try a make a buck off of it, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see a move worth getting up in arms about in the future.
Maybe it’s less about what the company has done and more about what you believe it’s capable of. “I’d been planning to shut down my FB for a while. This just sealed the deal,” Betabeat’s Steve Huff told me. “I suddenly understood just how little trust I have for them.”