Facebook, the Phone Number Privacy Brouhaha and Birthday Wall Posts

Just as with the changing of the taps on Sam Adams seasonal flavors, every few months or so we can be guaranteed another “OMG, Facebook is invading my privacy because of [x].” This time around? The uproar is that the mobile app for Facebook conveniently grabs any phone number of your friends that they have made public and allows you to access it from within your phone. Of course, the ability to access this was blown grossly out of proportion: some people thought those numbers were completely published or saved by Facebook. They weren’t, but who doesn’t love a good cut-and-paste status message on what Facebook is doing to us?

(Let the record show that the m.facebook.com version has had this phone book option for as long as I can remember accessing it. In fact, I remember talking years ago that it was one of my favorite features of the mobile version of Facebook because the time I’m most likely to need and/or use the number that a friend made public on their profile is when I’m using a phone. Utility! I digress.)

Facebook responded with a status message response on Wednesday, and it was generally helpful to nerds like me who read Terms of Service (Termses of Service? Terms of Servii?). I don’t know if that generally explains it well enough. Basically, Facebook encourages you to add your phone number when syncing with one of the apps – and you have full rights to control who sees it based on your levels of privacy.

Talking about phone numbers is complicated, though. So I’m going to change course but write about something that works the exact same way from a privacy standpoint: your birthday. In fact, the settings are really similar (in terms of you limiting who can see it), it is completely required to register your account and actually is promoted even more publicly to your friends.

I don’t have the luxury of historic screen shots, but I hope my memory doesn’t fail me too well.

In 2004 at launch, just like any registration online, Facebook requested the birthday of its users to validate age. This was the profile-only era of Facebook, no walls and certainly no news feed. Birthdays were listed on the page and could be removed from the public eye by the viewer. In 2005, when the pages were first update to include the walls, birthday was still present, but without the news feed, there was no other landing page to gather birthday information (although somewhere in the back pages, you could find a list by day of your friends birthdays – not at all unlike the list of contacts that you can find related to phone number).

The biggest change was when birthday information went from being on the profile page to the landing page – thanks to the late 2006 introduction of the News Feed. Sure, the information was “below the fold” of the screen, but it was public enough that people started more regularly using the occasion to post on friends’ walls. Of course, by the next year, those wall postings too started making the news feed and thus was the birth of the Facebook Birthday phenom. Now? The information on your contacts’ birthdays is in one of the most prominent places on the home page, and it’s probably the way most of your contacts interact with you. (David Plotz’s hysterical “My Fake Facebook Birthdays” is a delightful overview of the banality of these types of posts, but that’s just a worthy tangent).

Do you remember any sort of uprising when Facebook moved the information about your birthday to this public of a place? Probably not. You were bombarded with greetings from friends and contacts. It was enjoyable – and there was a pretty good user reason why Facebook made the change to coincide with existing habits of its members. Now think of phone numbers of your friends and contacts: it is just as easy to hide your birthday from different friends as it your phone number.

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