Saving Face

Saving Face is a good, thoughtful contribution to the literature on social network site privacy. It builds on danah boyd, Alessandro Acquisti, Clay Shirky, Lorrie Cranor, and yours truly in thinking about privacy on Facebook as a difficult problem of social norms and interface design, rather than as a contradiction in terms. It makes a set of small but reasonable suggestions that could help Facebook incrementally improve its users’ ability to predict the privacy contributions of their actions:

  • “A more powerful version of the Friends List feature could allow users to construct very different identities or “personas” for each list.” (55) … “It could, for instance, perform basic network analysis on a user’s Friends network to inform them of what clusters may already exist, and perhaps to create default Friends Lists for them automatically to help them along.” (59) … “It could push the Friends List feature as a way to manage privacy and inspire users to utilize it to preserve social contexts.” (60)
  • “Another option would be to help users visualize actual disclosures. That is, Facebook could be designed such that users were informed whenever Friends actually accessed their photos, videos, or Wall.” (63)
  • “Instead, defaults should be modeled after the norms of distribution. Contextual integrity is violated when information does not flow through the network as users expect it should. The obvious solution is to design the network such that information flows consistent with user expectations and norms.” (66)

These ideas are not deeply original, but they all move the ball forward in the way that scholarship ought to. Saving Face is also a pleasure to read: it opens with a true story about a college student and her grandmother, and it finishes with a spot-on Seinfeld reference.

What makes all of this noteworthy is that the author, Chris Peterson, wrote Saving Face as his college senior thesis. (It was prepared nder the supervision of Ethan Katsh at UMass Amherst.) It’s a remarkably mature paper for one so young.