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Internet | Media | Politics

August 17, 2007

Reporters, Meet Facebook

Questions and answers for journalists navigating walls, pokes, friend lists, and groups about threesomes to find stories.

Michael Gluckstadt

Last week, Slate created controversy by publishing an article revealing that Caroline Giuliani had joined a Facebook group in support of Barrack Obama, accompanied by a screenshot of her profile. The story was picked up in the mainstream press, from the New York Times to CNN. Many blogs disapproved of Slate's actions, and Slate readers commenting in The Fray were particularly incensed by the lack of discretion. JoshC wrote, "I don't think that it's fair to invade his daughter's online privacy."

"The political leanings of a presidential candidate's estranged teenage daughter should not be making the rounds in the respected news media."

But do you forgo online privacy when publishing information on a network that can be viewed by 42,000 people? When is it OK to share information gained from Facebook? Below, Gelf offers a FAQ for confused journalists—a guide to covering this newfangled social-networking phenomenon, from the perspective of a typical Facebook user, who is a decade or three younger than many of those confused journalists.

(In the spirit of Gelf's own FAQ, none of these are actual questions from actual people.)

Q: What does it mean to "friend" someone? Do you actually have to know the person?

A: First of all, Gelf respectfully requests all journalists to stop putting the verb "friend" in quotation marks. Facebook has over 30 million users and MySpace an additional 40-million-plus active users, and these hordes of social networkers "friend" people on a regular basis. The practice is widespread enough to discontinue the condescending quotation marks of an older generation bemused by the novelty of the term. (While you're at it, putting quotation marks around "texting" just looks silly.)

As for the nature of these "friends," they run the gamut from nonacquaintance to soul mate. They are people the user has known his/her entire life, a classmate from three semesters ago who took good notes, an attractive person stumbled across while searching, cousins, people who attend a party and immediately go home and friend everyone they met, fake celebrities, fake religious figures, fake political candidates, floormates, people with the same name, old childhood friends long forgotten, professors, complete strangers who seem interesting, and any number of different categories of people. I have a friend who friends every one of the New York Giants draft picks. The bottom line is, "friends" aren't necessarily real friends but people who share something, even if it's just the ability to see each other's profiles.

Q: How is Facebook different from MySpace?

A: There are too many differences to list here, both functional and social. MySpace users have the ability to code and embed items in their own pages, which results in much livelier, more diverse pages than the uniform and sterile white-and-blue Facebook profile. However, these capabilities can also be an irritant to visitors who don't want to click on a profile and suddenly hear Fergie blasting from their speakers as ASCII snowflakes cover the screen.

Socially, MySpace and Facebook have had divergent evolutionary paths. Facebook has generally been accepted as the network of choice for college students and forward-looking high-schoolers, who see it as a safe and fun environment (for most of Facebook's history, it was open only to students). Meanwhile, MySpace has taken on an altogether different set of connotations. The ability to play music has attracted many bands to create their own MySpace pages, and also corporations to use it as a marketing tool. A large percentage of MySpace users seem to be from California and the Philippines. MySpace is also generally favored among younger crowds looking to express themselves, and therefore is also popular among pedophiles trolling the internet and hoping not to end up on To Catch a Predator.

Due to the author's personal predilections and growing social trends in Facebook's favor, this FAQ will focus on Facebook.

" 'Jews who love booze' and 'My girlfriend will have a threesome if this group reaches 10,000 members' look funny on a profile, but have little useful information."
Q: Who can see a Facebook profile? Is there any expectation of privacy?

A: Under the standard privacy settings, any two people who are either friends or in the same network can view each other's profiles. Networks can be very large (New York, New York), medium (Cornell), or very small (Gelf Magazine; friend us!). In the case of Giuliani, her profile was only available to her own friends and members of the Harvard and Trinity High School networks. The writer of the Slate article, Lucy Morrow Caldwell, was able to view Giuliani's profile because she is a member of the Harvard network. While there are a limited number of people who can view a profile, it isn't hard to share that information. Students are often reminded to take down damaging information before applying for serious jobs, since it is very possible that someone who works for that potential employer will have access to their information. Too often those warnings go unheeded.

Q: What are the different privacy settings? Are they widely used?

A: Facebook offers a great deal of control over who can view different parts of a user's profile. For each section users have the option of making the information accessible to friends only, to some networks and friends, or to all networks and friends. Settings can also be adjusted to determine which personal information appears on friends' news feeds, bulletins of friends' recent activity that is found on the Facebook home page.

Certain friends can be placed on a limited profile list that allows them to see only the skeletal aspects of a profile, without sharing photos or personal information. The limited profile list is a good place for pesky high school-aged cousins, professors, or some coworkers. The truth is, with all of these privacy options in place, most users still opt for the lax standard model, in which all information is shared with all friends and those on the same networks. On top of that, unless they have good reason not to, most users will accept any friend request, so it is relatively easy to gain access to a profile.

Q: What sort of information is on a profile?

A: Different people put varying amounts of information on their profiles. Some bare-bones profiles feature little more than a name, picture, birthday, and network. Others feature a wealth of inside jokes and personal information. The typical profile consists of relationship status and what the user is looking for (i.e. men, women, friendship, or random play); an email contact or website; lists of favorite books, movies, TV shows, and music; personal quotes, which are usually inspirational, a funny quote from a movie or comedian, or something stupid a friend once said; education and work information; and a wall, which is a space on which any friend can write. Profiles also link to any pictures that the user has posted or been tagged in. All of these features come standard with any Facebook profile, but the recently launched Facebook Platform allows users to host applications on their profiles as well. There are apps for posting videos, rating songs, and planning trips, but as of yet there are no apps that have revolutionized the use of Facebook.

In the traditional profile, there are slots for political and religious views, as well. The political views space has only seven options: Very Liberal, Liberal, Moderate, Conservative and Very Conservative, Libertarian and Apathetic. Most of the profiles I've encountered from schools in the Northeast are overwhelmingly liberal-leaning or ironically conservative. This may be due to a personal bias among my friends, but I would hardly consider any person's political views on Facebook to be newsworthy, whoever their father may be. Caldwell's own conservative political leanings (the views she expresses in the Harvard Crimson are known to spur debate on campus) may have informed her choice to call attention to Giuliani's.

"The truth is, with all of these privacy options in place, most users still opt for lax settings."
Q: What is Facebook used for?

A: On a college campus, everything. Students use Facebook to communicate with one another via Facebook messages and wall postings. They share pictures from frat parties and weddings, goofing off in the dorm and study-abroad trips. Purdue University recently announced that it would use Facebook to contact students in case of emergency. Facebook is also an excellent way to keep in touch with old friends. It is easy to keep tabs on a distant friend's personal life, with relationship status and recent pictures only a click away. A quickie birthday wall post or random message is a convenient albeit superficial way of reaching out to someone.

In its most literal sense, Facebook is used just as any old college facebook would be, to connect a name with a face seen on campus. It is used to check out members of the opposite sex, both for one's own purposes or to confirm the claims of a friend. Careful, though: Facebook profile pictures, like those on online-dating sites, generally are selected to make the user look good, sometimes deceptively so. For a more accurate assessment, it is usually better to look at a picture posted by another user in which the subject has been tagged.

Q: What does it mean to be "poked" on Facebook?

A: No one really knows.

Q: What are Facebook groups?

A: Any user has the ability to start and invite people to a Facebook group. Groups range from the inspirational ("For every member who joins this group I'll give $1 to Darfur") to the pointless ("The World's Biggest Facebook Group!!!"). But for the most part, groups are a fun momentary diversion checked few times after they're joined. "Jews who love booze" and "My girlfriend will have a threesome if this group reaches 10,000 members" look funny on a profile, but have little useful information.

Other groups serve practical purposes. These groups tend to have much more activity on the message boards, whether that group is "fell in a pool and need all ur cell #s" or Ms. Giuliani's former group "Barack Obama (One Million Strong for Barack)." The Obama group features lively discussion and links to relevant information on the candidate. Caldwell claimed that joining this group amounts to supporting the candidate, while the Giuliani camp issued the following statement: "Before the presidential campaign got under way, Caroline added herself to a list on Facebook as an expression of interest in certain principles. It was not intended as an indication of support in a presidential campaign, and she has removed it." The Giuliani statement is a little baffling: What principles could she be interested in other than supporting Obama for president? So Caldwell was correct in pointing out that Giuliani supported Obama, but was she within her rights to do so?

Q: Is it permissible to share content taken from Facebook?

A: No. Facebook released a statement regarding Caldwell's actions saying, "Facebook users agree in the sites terms of use and policies that they will not reproduce other user profiles without permission from the user in question and Facebook. Permission was not granted in this case, and Facebook has disabled the offending account." Caldwell broke the site's Terms of Service when she reproduced a screenshot of Giuliani's profile on Slate. Facebook is not looking to take legal action, and Caldwell has expressed no regret over her actions, despite being banned from the site. The question isn't so much whether or not it is permissible to share personal information taken from Facebook, but whether it is ethical.

Q: When is it OK to share information gained from Facebook?

A: When it's justified. The status of information placed on Facebook is murky because it is neither entirely public nor private. That being said, if the information is particularly newsworthy, like the MySpace page of the Virginia Tech shooter, then it should be shared.
Sometimes, Facebook can reveal an interesting take on a tired story, like when friends of members of the Rutgers women's basketball team jokingly called the players "nappy headed hos" on their Facebook walls during the high-pitched Imus controversy. However, the political leanings of a presidential candidate's estranged teenage daughter should not be making the rounds in the respected news media.
I believe the reason for the coverage, and therefore the blame, comes from the source of the story. Slate is one of the foremost respectable internet publications, and holds itself to journalistic standards typical of print magazines and newspapers, not political blogs. Many sites take cues from the way Slate reports on the internet, and their coverage of this nonevent resounded in the mainstream press. This type of material is posted all the time on many political blogs, particularly Wonkette, which posted a follow-up article with pictures of the underage Giuliani drinking at a party. The reason why these articles are generally unreported in the mainstream press is because they come from the world of blogs, which the mainstream press is still not entirely sure how to deal with. Those unconscious quotation marks, in print or in tone, are readily apparent in news from "the blogosphere." It is inevitable that the two will grow closer together, as blogs like DailyKos and Gawker have become their own miniature media empires, and respectable news sources now regularly feature blogs on their site. One can only hope that this will result in higher-grade reporting from blogs, and not lower standards of news journalism in the mainstream press.

Related in Gelf

The election and technology also collided awkwardly when Obama met MySpace and when candidates met HDTV.

Related on the web

In the Village Voice, Wayne Barrett explored the presidential candidate's troubled relationship with his family. Sophos found that 41% of Facebook users in a test readily divulged their personal information to a fraudulent stranger, according to this InformationWeek article.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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- Internet
- posted on Aug 19, 07

Good on you Michael. Well said. I especially like the way you answered the question about being poked.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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