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The New York Sun

This week Peter Lake, an expert on law and higher education, warned that Web sites such as MySpace could hurt colleges. The material on such sites might invite lawsuits charging that universities were responsible for trouble that the sites’ notoriously explicit postings brought about.

The argument seems plausible, especially since the papers recently reported that a young woman was recently arrested for her jealous threat to kill another woman. The woman was angry that her boyfriend had posted the other woman’s picture on his Web site.

These reports are the latest evidence of an ongoing struggle between two cultures on the Internet — the culture of exhibitionism and the culture of the privacy of the community. Unfortunately, the culture of exhibitionism is winning.

Exhibitionism in America has always existed. But it has been particularly evident in the newer media. The degradations of Reality TV were pretty bad — before then, no one could imagine so many minutes of tears on television. But newer media are allowing people to further degrade themselves. MySpace and Friendster are the examples of sites that can be fun and useful, but can also be sorely abused and depressing. When 13- year-old girls promote their body measurements, as they do on such sites, something is wrong.

On these Web sites almost everything is searchable and accessible to all age ranges — all you need is an email address to sign up for an account on these sites. “MySpace is more high school and 40- and 50-year-olds interested in high school students,” Alykhan Velshi, a Facebook user and London School of Economics graduate, told me. In more olden days mothers warned their girls not to trade intimacy for affection. MySpace suggests that revealing intimate information is the only way to receive attention.

Facebook, a networking site founded by a Harvard student and initially limited to Ivy League and Stanford students, created a niche for itself by providing extensive privacy controls for its members, seemed different, at least for a while. It allows members to elect what information is visible and to whom it is visible. The product strengthened clubbiness — it emphasized the “league” in Ivy League. Facebook has since branched out from its exclusive roots but remains limited to academic institutions and to those with a “.edu” e-mail address.

The regular citizen cannot search the Facebook site or view members’ profiles unless he or she is a member. “It’s not an open network,” Hana Albert, a 2006 Harvard grad, told me. “That’s the biggest bonus about it.” Such benefits sent Facebook’s popularity soaring — it is now the seventh most trafficked Web site in America. The Facebook’s meteoric rise to Internet prominence demonstrates that people are desirous of sites that provide boundaries and a sense of security. “Facebook seems safer to me — MySpace kind of creeps me out,” Michael Faherty, a Facebook user, said. “Facebook has a level of decency and a certain legitimacy because everyone is on it for the same reason. It came out of an academic setting so there is a bigger element of trust.” Facebook allows users to set up study groups and members are able to see all the classes offered by their university or college. Moreover, Facebook users have limited access to other users — members can only search people within their network, which is limited to school, location, and business organization. Facebook reinforced the elitism of its community and helped its members connect.

One of the things about exhibitionism is that it only works when it shocks. In order to be a successful exhibitionist, you have to reveal something that was formerly out of reach, usually by crossing some boundaries.

Facebook seems to have succumbed to the pressure of creating something new and flashy. On September 5, Facebook decided to cross a border that drastically diminished the privacy of its users. Without warning, the site’s management team equipped users’ accounts with features called News Feed and Mini Feed, which track their movements — such as the friends they add and the groups they join — and make them visible to other subscribers.

The backlash from the site’s subscribers was instant and widespread. Members began creating groups in opposition to News Feed and Mini Feed. One such group, Students Against Facebook News Feed (Official Petition to Facebook), has over half a million members. The group stated, “We want to feel just a little bit of privacy, even if it is Facebook. News Feed is just too creepy, too stalker-esque, and a feature that has to go.”

The ubiquitous dissatisfaction with the new features prompted Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, to issue a public apology just three days after the features were added. “We really messed this one up,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. When we launched News Feed and Mini-Feed we were trying to provide you with a stream of information about your social world. Instead, we did a bad job of explaining what the new features were and an even worse job of giving you control of them. I’d like to try to correct those errors now.”

Even when it comes to Facebook, exhibitionism has held some ground. Instead of retracting News Feed and Mini Feed, Mr. Zuckerberg retained those features, merely adding privacy options to them.

Whatever the situation or example may be, it is sad that more people do not care to pay attention to their own privacy. Knowing what can happen when younger people, especially, overexpose themselves — kidnapping, murder, even stealing of bank records — it is disheartening to think that they don’t take more precautions.

But exhibitionism also causes less dramatic losses — losses of personal pride, for example. In the end, Americans do want privacy. They just struggle with deciding how much exhibitionism is too much. And they don’t seem to know how to set their own privacy meters. But the answer to that is not going to be found online.

The New York Sun

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