Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Me and 500 of My Facebook BFFs: A Rambling Stream of Consciousness About Facebook

Okay, so this post is not a legal update. So sue me. Just accept that you will see more nonlegal posts interspersed among my legal analyses from now on.

The other morning I was thinking about how on-line banks and financial institutions these days are requiring users to answer “security questions” to verify identity and keep identity theft at bay.  It then occurred to me,that on-line social sites such as Facebook put their users at risk, because they encourage people to share in a public setting the personal information banks use to verify one’s identity. Perhaps people should not be using Facebook the way we all do because many of the answers to the “security questions” used most often can be found on the Wall of one’s  Facebook page. For example, my home town, my high school, a list of my family members, and now with the new timeline, my job history and places I have lived and the respective dates are all posted for anyone to which I give access to find.  Thus, security questions like mother’s maiden name, city you were born in, first pet’s name, first employer, or even high school mascot  all potentially could easily be found with not too much effort.   To put this in perspective, if one’s security setting allows only friends of friends to see wall posts and information, and one has,  say, 500 friends, each of who have 500 friends, one’s “security” information is potentially accessible to tens of thousands of people.

But maybe the flaw isn’t in the information Facebook has lulled us into voluntarily posting on our accounts, or even in Facebook’s privacy settings.  Yes, I know, this is antithetical to the Facebook bashing of late and accusations that Facebook intentionally makes it difficult to control one’s privacy settings. But it is not as if the type of information posted on Facebook is super secret stuff like one’s social security number. With all the conspiracy theories about Facebook, I have yet to see an accusation that Facebook is gathering social security numbers, ATM PINs, or bank account information.  Realistically, the type of information contained on my Facebook wall is information I would have no problem sharing with a complete stranger I just met.  The usual mindless, boring, get-to-know-you chitchat is not infrequently comprised of where one was born, what high school one attended or what type of embarrassing first car one owned.  I am not often concerned nor do I even consider that the person with whom I might share this type of information is going to steal my identity.  So maybe the flaw isn’t Facebook.  Maybe the real flaw is the type of questions the bank considers “security” inducing.  Maybe the banks should be asking stuff that we do tend to keep super secret, such as what loathsome diseases one has, or one’s criminal history, annual income, number of late payments in the past twelve months.  Maybe using information we would divulge just to be social is not fodder for a security question to verify our identity. After all, it is those mundane details about one’s self that we use to socialize and with which we make friends with one another.  So, maybe Facebook has it right after all.

So, maybe the problem is the number of people we friend on Facebook.   Do we really need to friend everyone we ever knew and his brother?  Do we really have 500 bffs in this world?  Before on-line social networks, we made friends the old fashioned way; we hung out with them.  According to research conducted by the likes of Festinger (1954), Schachter and Back (1950), and Zajonc (1968), the one factor that most predicted whether two people became friends is propinquity.  Throughout different stages of our lives, we share propinquity with different sets of people: the kids on our street in elementary school; the kids in our class in high school; the kids in our dorms in college; the colleagues and/or neighbors we have as young adults; the people who parent the kids that hang out with our kids; and perhaps inevitably, the people whose rooms are next to ours in the nursing home.

As we moved along life, we drop some friends, keep in touch with a select few, and move on to a new set of friends. Part of what keeps us friends is being in close enough geographic proximity to one another so that we may share the little mundane things about our lives.  For example,“Oh! Did I tell you what so-and-so’s response was to my letter (email post 1990s)?” or “My wife wants me to take her to another bad 70’s/80’s/90’s band/concert this weekend.  Wanna come?” or “Dude, I want a rematch on that racquet ball game last week.”  If we didn’t have this semi regular discourse, most people who were in our circle fell out, with the exception of the one or two with whom we kept in touch regardless of where we were in life or where we moved geographically.

Facebook has really changed all that.  Not only do we keep in contact with more people, perhaps people we would even be happier to have lost contact with, but we are kept up to date on all those mundane details on a regular basis.  We post our status constantly. “Made it to the gym today, did 50 push ups, my personal best.” Or “My three year old knocked out his front tooth.” Or “I was offered a new job at Local Big Firm.” Propinquity is now present not only in real space, but in cyberspace.  I was keenly made aware of this revelation when I updated my own status last week to announce my accepting a job offer at Local Big Firm.  I received comments or “likes” from somewhere around 50 separate people.  In my life, I have never had 50 people in anyone circle of friends to which I would have made this announcement and in return received so many heart warming good wishes.  And of course, these 50 people don’t include those closest to me who don’t even have (gasp!) a Facebook account!  When I saw (what I consider) the large number of good wishes, I started thinking about what the 217 people I have friended on Facebook really mean to me. Like many, my (modest) Facebook posse consists of friends and acquaintances from: elementary school, high school, college, neighbors from old addresses, work, family, present neighbors, friends/acquaintances, friends/acquaintances made because of my kids’ friends, and all their brothers. Surely I don’t have 217 bffs, do I??  The propinquity theory dispels this, doesn’t it? I don’t have regular contact and/or discourse with 217 people, except in cyberspace. Can the propinquity theory be applied to cyberspace?  The answer is yes.  Propinquity explains cyberspace just as well as real space.

Here’s the thing.  Facebook gives us the tool to create propinquity in cyberspace.  I had an epiphany that brought this conclusion into focus for me.  I have a friend Matt E. from college (not to be confused with my close friend Matt G. from grad school).  Matt E. and I were close friends in college and for a few years after until our lives diverged.  He got married, I moved to go to grad school.  I haven’t actually seen Matt E. in person since Bush Sr. was President.  If not for Facebook, I likely would never have (recently) gotten back “in touch” with Matt.  By Facebook standards, “in touch” means we friended each other and said something like, “Long time no see!” and left it at that beyond public status updates. But I have read Matt’s status updates and posts.  I was updated on his trip to Korea and saw pictures of his college-aged daughter I have never met.  And presumably, Matt has seen my posts about my latest work-out session personal bests and has seen pictures of my five year old’s cut finger that resulted to an ER visit, along with the other 216 Facebook friends I have. 

Here’s how my epiphany went.  After making my post about my new job, Matt made a short, tongue-in-cheek comment that reminded me just how well he knew/knows me.  That short comment bridged both time and space to bring him back, if only briefly, to being one of my closest friends. Without Facebook, that would never have happened. Without Facebook, I might have looked him up on a trip back home. Maybe.  I might have suggested that we grab lunch. We might have spent the two hours “catching up.” “So, how’s your daughter? In college?? Really???” and that would have been that for another ten or twenty years, if we were lucky. Facebook dispenses the small talk we engage in on a semi regular basis when we are in proximity to each other and that brings us together and keeps us friends.  Even if we don’t act on the information posted to Facebook, e.g., “How was your trip to Korea?” (and really, Facebook relieves us of that social requisite of feigning interest in some subjects), nonetheless, it keeps us friends.  So when Matt thinks of something short and witty to say to me that he knows only I will get, time and space don’t get in the way of him making that comment to me. All he need do is click on my post and type a comment.  Just like that, we shared an inside joke between two friends.  So yeah, I really do have 217, give or take, bffs. Facebook, and all it’s evil information-gathering, makes it possible for me to do so.

So, really, it’s the banks that need to come up with some other way to make our on-line banking more secure. Using mundane facts to put up firewalls to our financial information is just a dumb idea, even without Facebook putting it all out there.


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