Carnegie Mellon has a new study, “Silent Listeners: The Evolution of Privacy and Disclosure on Facebook” (CMU pdf; archive pdf), about social-media networking site Facebook’s users and their ideas of privacy, focusing on how these ideas and behaviors have changed between 2005 and 2011. Here’s the abstract:
Over the past decade, social network sites have experienced dramatic growth in popularity, reaching most demographics and providing new opportunities for interaction and socialization. Through this growth, users have been challenged to manage novel privacy concerns and balance nuanced trade-offs between disclosing and withholding personal information. To date, however, no study has documented how privacy and disclosure evolved on social network sites over an extended period of time. In this manuscript we use profile data from a longitudinal panel of 5,076 Facebook users to understand how their privacy and disclosure behavior changed between 2005—the early days of the network—and 2011.
Our analysis highlights three contrasting trends. First, over time Facebook users in our dataset exhibited increasingly privacy-seeking behavior, progressively decreasing the amount of personal data shared publicly with unconnected profiles in the same network. However, and second, changes implemented by Facebook near the end of the period of time under our observation arrested or in some cases inverted that trend. Third, the amount and scope of personal information that Facebook users revealed privately to other connected profiles actually increased over time—and because of that, so did disclosures to “silent listeners” on the network: Facebook itself, third-party apps, and (indirectly) advertisers. These findings highlight the tension between privacy choices as expressions of individual subjective preferences, and the role of the environment in shaping those choices.