If you were on Facebook today you probably saw a message like this:
WARNING: All your private messages from 2010 and earlier are now visible on your public timeline. It’s probably the biggest fuck up ever in Internet privacy. To hide them, go to Privacy settings > Timeline & tagging > Who can see what others post on your timeline > Custom > Only me
The real story can be revealed by cross referencing any “leaked” messages with email notifications you received for that particular message. You’ll see that no matter how private they may have looked, all the messages displaying on your timeline today are wall posts, not private messages.
Isaac! Isaac! Isaac!, you may yell, I saw messages on there that were definitely private! Oh really? Check again.
There might be a very slender chance that Facebook really did f*** up and are covering their ass. However, considering that if that really were the case, 100,000 people could provide evidence against them and make them look very silly — and considering that FB has given very solid technical reasons why the types of messages couldn’t have been mixed up (basically, messages were stored in HBase, and wall posts in MySQL) — I think it’s pretty likely FB is right here.
This would all be pointless tech drama, but it has highlighted an important point. The way we use Facebook, and Facebook itself, have changed dramatically over the last few years. This is why people are confusing wall posts from long ago with private messages – back in the day, we treated our public Facebook profiles very differently to how we do now.
To jog your memory, this is what FB looked like circa 2008/9:
A few things to note:
- Wall posts didn’t have comments in those days (nor did they have a “like” button. Can you believe it?) Conversations were all about the “wall-to-wall”.
- Chat didn’t exist, and messaging was used much less frequently. So wall posts were used for things that would be private messages now.
- Most importantly, our attitude to public wall posts was very different.
It’s the last point that’s most important. It’s hard to remember, but the current massive controversies around social media privacy were barely on the radar a few years ago. The subsequent change in attitudes is partly due to Facebook making their platform more “open”, and partially due to raising concerns amongst users.
For example, you didn’t have to worry about your posts being read by the general public – that wasn’t even an option back in 2008. You did, of course, have to worry about your mum reading about your drunken misadventures. But even that felt like much less of an issue than it does now. People hadn’t yet learned to self-censor.
The best analogy I can think of: old Facebook was like having some friends around at your own house. Though you probably wouldn’t prance about naked or insult people to their face, you’d feel comfortable dressing down or trading off-colour jokes. New Facebook is more like a social gathering in a public place – still friendly and informal, but you have to be much more careful to present a respectable image and avoid saying anything offensive.
I think Zuck was right when he said that people would adapt to a world with less privacy and more “transparency” – people adapted, and became more polite, bland and inoffensive as a result. “I never would have posted something like that on my wall”, they say, and really mean it.