Privacy settings in the age of Facebook

By Michelle Williams

Over the last decade, people have opened Myspace, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and have become increasingly more conscious about what is available online to the public.

And according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, “social network users are becoming more active in pruning and managing their accounts.” The study found that two-thirds of internet users that are on social networking sites, and of those users, the majority have increased security settings since 2009.
More than 90 percent of social network users have a Facebook profile, which increased from 73 percent in 2009. Meanwhile, the number of social network users with Twitter accounts has grown from 6 percent in 2009 to 11 percent now, according to the report.

“As social media use has become a mainstream activity, there has been an increasingly polarized public debate about whether or not ‘privacy’ can be dismissed as a relic in the information age,” said Mary Madden, the lead researcher of the report.

More than half of the people on Facebook reported that their main profile wall and photos can only be viewed by “friends.”

Women and younger users between the ages of 18 and 29 are more likely to unfriend other users and limit access to photos and wall posts. Sixty-seven percent of women reported that they have deleted people from their “friends” list, while 58 percent of men reported unfriending other users.

Clyde Sheppard, a sophomore at University of Massachusetts, said he often doesn’t accept friend requests from other Facebook users.

“I feel kind of bad, but I don’t always accept everyone. If they’re someone I haven’t seen since high school and don’t talk to, I won’t accept,” said Sheppard.

UMass freshman Kelsey Baumgarten said she is rethinking her current privacy settings on Facebook.

“I have my profile set to public, though I need to change that. I need to figure out how to do that.” Baumgarten added that she plans on changing the settings because “anyone can search you online, including employers.”

The study showed that 48 percent of users, like Baumgarten, reported having “some level of difficultly in managing the privacy controls on their profile.” The study also showed that users who are college educated are much more likely to experience difficulty with privacy settings than those with less education.

“Many users are learning and refining their approach as they go, changing privacy settings on profiles, customizing who can see certain updates and deleting unwanted information about them that appears online,” Madden wrote in the report.

She added, “Search engines and social media sites now play a central role in building one’s identity online.”

Online, one can edit their identity by deleting photos and comments made by others on their wall. The results showed that 44 percent of users have deleted comments and photos posted by others on their profile.

“A notable portion of those who already restrict access to their [social networking sites] take further steps to limit what certain friends can see. [Twenty-six] percent of those whose profile is at least partially private say they use additional privacy settings to limit what certain friends can and cannot see,” Madden wrote in the report. This finding is consistent throughout all age groups.

Baumgarten said she is likely to delete or “untag” photos she deemed inappropriate. “Not that I have anything bad on my profile, I just don’t want everything to be online.”

Sheppard, who has his profile visible only to “friends,” said he occasionally deletes comments or photos from his wall.

Whether or not privacy can be dismissed as a relic in the information age, with a click of a button, people can become “friends” and cultivate their online persona through their posts and photos.

Michelle Williams can be reached at [email protected] Keri Ann O’Riordan can be reached at [email protected]