The Trouble with Facebook's 'See Friendship' Feature

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Correction Appended: November 24, 2010

Facebook normally catches flack for making private information available to advertisers. But last month, the social-networking site with half a billion users quietly added a feature that makes your private information available to the friends of your friends, which may be a much more nefarious group. A button called "See Friendship" aggregates onto a single page all of the information that two friends share: photos both people have been tagged in, events they have attended or are planning to attend, comments they have exchanged, etc. Unless these pals have their privacy settings on maximum, you need only be "friends" with one of the them to see this stuff. So let's say I've turned down an ex-boyfriend's request for friendship; he can still peruse my pictures or trace my whereabouts by viewing my interactions with our mutual pals.

The "See Friendship" feature was launched by Facebook developer Wayne Kao, who credited his inspiration to the joy of browsing through friends' photos. "A similarly magical experience was possible if all of the photos and posts between two friends were brought together," he wrote on the Facebook blog. "You may even see that moment when your favorite couple met at a party you all attended."

The problem with that, according to the more than 3,800 users who have joined a Facebook group demanding to be given the ability to opt out of the feature, is that the couple might not want friends of friends seeing that moment. They might not even want many people to know they're a couple. Barry Wellman, a University of Toronto professor who studies social networks and real-life relationships, thinks Facebook developers don't understand the fundamental difference between life online and offline. "We all live in segmented, diversified worlds. We might be juggling girlfriends, jobs or different groups of friends," he says. "But [Facebook thinks] we're in one integrated community."

In this era of "media convergence" — when GPS and wireless devices are colluding to make one's offline location known in the virtual world — friendship pages allow you to see an event your nonfriend has RSVP'd to or a plan he or she made with your mutual pal. At best, "See Friendship" is an invasion of privacy (one disgruntled user likened the feature to having sex on a football field in broad daylight). At worst, "it brings cyberstalking to a new level," says Kevin Wright, a professor of computer-mediated communication at the University of Oklahoma. "We're just beginning to see the toll this is taking on people."

And then there's the already gnawing problem of Facebook, one this new feature will only exacerbate: seeing all the fun your friends are having without you. "You're making a normally ambiguous situation very concrete," says Wellman. "People don't call you up and say, 'Hey, we're not calling you.'"

Correction: The original version of this article did not make it clear that the “See Friendship” feature doesn’t work if one of the parties uses their privacy settings to allow only their immediate friends to see their information.

The original version of this article did not make it clear that the “See Friendship” feature doesn't work if one of the parties uses their privacy settings to allow only their immediate friends to see their information.