Private or Public? Has Facebook changed the privacy game?

As Facebook starts to become more and more a part of people's online lives there seems to be a growing number of commentators who have decided to deactivate or delete their accounts.

Usually concerned about privacy issues, some people are opting out of Facebook and choosing not to take part in the social media revolution.  

There are others, however, who have now started questioning this. Here's one that's worth a visit: 'Is Deleting Your Facebook Account Really a Good Idea?

Two points are made here that are particularly worthy of discussion:

1) As Facebook becomes more and more useful as a source of public data, and as it becomes a greater part of the Web, do you think it's a wise decision to abandon Facebook? 

2) The whole idea of privacy is changing, being re-written by anyone who has a life online. Isn't it better to consider everything you do online to be public?  

As a teacher, like it or not, at sometime you're going to have photos of you taken in class which will end up on Facebook /elsewhere on the Web.

This happened to me recently when a Tourism student of mine used her mobile phone to take a snapshot of me as I stood on a chair for comic effect (see left - thanks Sol for permission to use the photo). It was a surprise when I saw I'd been tagged, as I had no idea she'd taken the photograph, but I really don't mind it being shared here.

I think this is because I have got so used to living my online life in a very public way. I know it was difficult at first, and these questions of what I should and shouldn't share with people came up when I started blogging in 2003. I also have to say that, give or take a few minor feuds, nothing bad has yet happened to me sharing online (that I know about!). I have, though, heard some horror stories concerning other teachers and students and am sure that if any of this had happened to me I'd feel differently.

Another related blog post worth a read is the 'Concerned about Facebook? You're probably getting old'. Here, the author makes the point that privacy concerns are being voiced by people aged 35+ and wonders if it's because young people using these social networks are naive. I really don't think so - I think it's because new generations are growing up with this new idea of privacy (or lack of privacy) online.

Finally, the ability to easily reach other people using the web is creating a new kind of 'fame' (although 'fame' is the wrong word here - probably better to say many of us are now becoming 'not unknown') because of our web presence (we turn up on Google searches, etc). I am enjoying this and think it's related to Andy Warhol's idea of fifteen minutes of fame, when he said "In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.". 

I think Warhol's idea has changed. In the present day, it's more like 'everyone is famous in the eyes of fifteen people.' 


  1. Hi,
    We have received 495 nominations for The Top 100 Language Blogs 2010 competition. For each of the four categories we have admitted 100 blogs into the voting phase. Your blog is included for voting in the 'Language Technology' category. Congratulations!
    As stated in our language blog Lexiophiles, 50% of the final score will be based on user votes. You can promote your blog by embedding a voting button in your page. The button code is available in the Lexiophiles blog. It can also be sent via email if you contact me.
    The voting phase started on May 12th and ends on May 24th. Winners will be announced May 28th.
    Good luck!
    on behalf of the and Lexiophiles team

  2. Ha! Am just in the middle of writing a post (sorry I mean ranting) about FB and while checking the 'sphere for who else has been writing on this theme, found & enjoyed your article via Janet's.

    Mmmmm....I've been heavily debating the Facebook issue for about six months.

    I closed off my account so that only my intimate circle could see what I was writing but that backfired when I forgot to "categorize" folks. So then opened it up again.

    But sometimes when I land on my home page I see what everyone but my real friends and family are doing and it sort of feels sad... I know, I could put people in groups and work out how to see feeds from only x and y, but then why friend people at all if I'm not willing to glimpse into their lives as well?

    but then do I want everyone knowing my business...I do try to keep organizing things -meet up for drinks or parties in the private message function but sometimes slip up and post something on someone's wall... and that makes me feel weird after

    I don't know what my point is, Graham...

    Hmm.... I think I feel on the one hand that it is very cool to be connected with other folk and teachers but I'm not entirely sure that my being connected to these others isn't actually damaging my relationships within my private circles...

    Thoughts, thoughts.

    Take care,

  3. Thanks for dropping by, Karenne

    My, what a complicated social life you must have! I think I gave up trying to compartmentalise my life in this way some time ago - it was just more trouble than it was worth, and now I know that what I write online could be looked at by anyone, and so I don't post anything I'm not happy anyone can read. I'm now very happy with this approach and so seems to be working for me.

  4. The new generation are definitely approaching privacy very differently. I was shocked that my students happily added me to their Facebook friends' lists. At their age (17-20 years old), I would rather have died a thousand deaths before adding any of my teachers to Facebook (if Facebook had existed then). I wouldn't have wanted my teachers to see what I was up to in there, even if all my activities were completely innocent.

    When I asked, my students claimed to be on Facebook "every minute of every day". Personally, if they're spending so much time there, I feel we should at least know what it's all about. Besides, to them Facebook is all about communication, so I choose to use Facebook as another means of communicating with them.

    If we stay away and remain ignorant of these things, then how are we going to understand this new generation that we are teaching, and how are we going to stay effective and relevant as educators?

  5. Btw I came to your blog after viewing your YouTube video "Web 2.0 & Language Learning". I only started teaching 2 years ago and have been trying to think of ways to utilise Web 2.0 to aid in language learning. No answers yet! A blog with several authors is workable but then how to motivate the students to write there when I can't even get them to submit class essays...

    I was intrigued by the portion of your video that touched on Second Life. SL recently unveiled a new viewer with new technology that allows the display of "web on a prim" -- namely, you can now have any prim face render web pages with clickable links and text boxes you can enter data into. Flash and Java are also enabled. If you are interested, here's one resident's experience with it.

    As you might have guessed, I have an SL account but I've never explored the possibility of using SL in education. Internet connection is not terribly good in my country (Malaysia) and makes interacting in SL rather challenging, some days.

  6. Hi Irene,

    thanks for the comments (very relevant I think!) and for drawing my attention to the video too. A lot has changed since I made that video - I've been tempted to do an update, but there are always so many things that need to be done first...

    I'm looking forward to trying out the new feature in the reiteration of our Business English course in SL later this month (see earlier blog post) - Second Life is a very interesting proposition for distance learning and a great place to meet other teachers too. It hasn't taken off though as THE place to study languages online because of the steep learning curve and required bandwidth / high spec computer. It still has its place though, and I encourage you to check it out in more detail whenever you get the chance

  7. What struck me in your video was seeing all the avatars sitting listening to the teacher exactly like in a physical classroom. I've been an active SL resident for 2 years and I don't know, it just seemed strange that in Second Life, where the possibilities are endless, we would automatically move back to that sort of environment/construct. I do know that video was made about a few years ago, though, so I gather things might have changed since then.

    I think one of the major benefits of Second Life for an ESL/EFL learner would be the opportunity to practice their language skills, especially if they are living in a place surrounded by people speaking their first/native language and do not have many opportunities to practice the second language. Second Life will benefit learners who are motivated and want to take responsibility for their own learning. (Which also usually refers to mature students!)

  8. That's right, Irene - when teachers first started teaching in SL most thought they should duplicate the classroom at first, which was when those photos were taken - SL obviously offers so much more than that and one of its affordances is that you can be in almost any type of place you like. I think anyone teaching there now does take advantage of this aspect.

  9. Hi,

    Our “The Top 100 Language Blogs 2010 competition” is doing great, with some really cool blogs eager to get number 1 spot! We’re very glad you have accepted this challenge and joined us.

    This post is just to remind you there is still time to get your blog up in the list. The voting goes until May 24th at midnight CET (GMT +1), so get down to business and keep voting!

    Wishing you all good luck,

    On behalf of and Lexiophiles team

  10. Thanks, Priscilla - I like the idea of your competition for bringing poeople's attention to blogs they wouldn't otherwise know of

  11. Thanks for this informative post, Graham, which I think sums up some of the issues in the online privacy debate really well.

    My own feeling about FB and people deleting their accounts is a bit 'get over it'. We all have a digital footprints, and perhaps a lot more emphasis should be put into educating children currently at school about online identity, digital footprints and exactly what this means for everyone now and in the future.

    And in any event, even if you don't have much of a FB profile(like me) you are more than likely already in a database somewhere...


  12. I agree, Nicky - I think thing for us to do now and to help our learners (especially our young learners) do is to manage online presence and make sure we are not embarrassed or harmed in any way by what people come across when they search Google for us or Facebook, etc.

  13. Martin4:36 am

    Just being young does not give one any special insight; arguments should be judged on their own merits. There is some evidence (sexting is the most obvious example, but some surveys I've read show the same thing) that young people simply have a very naive view of what can be done with their information online.

    Oh, and having a life online does not necessitate having a Facebook account. I've never signed up to Facebook and my online life is going very well, thank you. I just don't tie it in my my RL identity.

  14. My school has asked instructors to include a statement about audio recording of lectures by students on all course syllabi. They recommend two one options:
    1: forbid students from recording
    2: allow students to record solely for personal use with the stipulation that any publication of said recording would be a violation of school code of conduct.

    I'm of the opinion that for the money the students or their parents are paying for the education they ought to be able to record and distribute as they see fit.

    As for Facebook, I quit using it and tried to delete all digital trace of me when students starting sending friend requests. For some reason, that's a line I don't want to have crossed.

  15. I respect your desire to keep your private life private, Martin, but I can't help wondering whether today's social networking means that our students and those who follow them will have a very different idea of what should and should not be private/public online.

    Scott, this is a shame - there's so much that can be done in this area to benefit students as you and I both know. I'd hope they don't ban it outright.

    As for Facebook, I also understand why you'd want to stay away from this, but I personally have no problem with it or with adding my students. I am getting used to living my life in a more public way. I don't know whether I'll change my mind in the future, but so far, I'm OK with this.

  16. Very interesting post, Graham, on a very hot topic right now. I'm new to Facebook, and still finding my feet. I know exactly what Karenne means about feeling sad when she goes to her FB wall and it's full of stuff you don't really care about. On the other hand, it has helped me get back in touch with family back home in Britain (I'm in Spain), remember a few more birthdays this year, and so on. So, for the time being, I'm keeping my account open.

    Looks like a great blog, by the way, and I see you've been nominated for some kind of prize, so well done :)

  17. Hi Graham,
    I checked your blog and really liked it.
    I’m just about to start an English teaching blog, if you have some time you could take a look at it and tell me you opinion.
    Thank you: Reka

  18. Facebook is great and has lots to offer but the fact that you cannot be anonymous makes it intruding. The stories about the CIA using it to collect data is not surprising. Few networks drive you to "tell all" like FB. The latest FB add forces you to be a fan of a group to indicate where you live is another way to pry information out of people and group them. These are FB controlled groups too.

    I guess the older you are the more you realize how private your life could be. No one makes us join and no one pays a cent to FB to keep our privacy, result: FB is collecting and selling all that it can. Nothing is free in the end.

    How many Facebook users would pay to keep their privacy and would FB be able to make that offer if some people wanted to remain public? Perhaps this is a market niche, a pay Facebook that is 100% private.

  19. @Colin the variety of things that you find on your wall reflects the people you connect to and their interests, so I think it all depends on who you connect to. I do agree that sometimes this gets annoying when you're not playing a particular game and all of your friends are. That's why I prefer Twitter - it's all about the conversation

    @Reeka, good for you - your blog looks fine. I see you haven't activated comments though - I'd recommend doing that

    @Kenny I agree that accepting Facebook is accepting a world that is far less private. I am OK with this - I have gained from the change that has happened to my privacy during the time I have been using the Internet. It's meant that I've met so many more people who have got to know so much more about me than they otherwise would have. If the FBI want to know about me too, then this is OK with me - I don't have anything to hide.

    As for FB using the information we provide willingly to them, I think this is a price that we pay for having a tool such as FB available to us for no money (the money to run it has to come from somewhere, and I'd rather have inobtrusive targeted ads about things I'm interested - it annoys me less than the obtrusive advertising on TV, for example)

    So, sorry, folks, but I don't buy into the big FB privacy scare. I am happy that there's a lobby group out there to keep it in check though.

  20. Very good post. Face has many advantages to us because i am able to meet with my old school mates. I have also listened from my friends about leakage of data by facebook.

    Very interesting post, Graham, on a very hot topic right now. I'm new to Facebook, and still finding my feet. I know exactly what Karenne means about feeling sad when she goes to her FB wall and it's full of stuff you don't really care about. On the other hand, it has helped me get back in touch with family back home in Britain (I'm in Spain), remember a few more birthdays this year, and so on. So, for the time being, I'm keeping my account open.


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