Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook.com, appeared in a Washington Post article Thursday defending changes to his Web site that allow users to view up-to-the-minute updates about their friends’ profiles. While there was abundant student protest shortly after the “news feed” feature went online more than a week ago, Zuckerberg gave me little indication that the Web site would change, and I expected that nothing would be done to protect student privacy.
My assumption about Facebook was a bit premature, however. Zuckerberg issued a prompt apology to the site’s users a day after the newspaper article, claiming that it was wrong for Facebook to offer the new feature without building in extra privacy controls and introducing new features that allow users to restrict the information appearing in the news feed. I applaud all students who took such an active stance against the Facebook changes by creating petitions and online groups advocating privacy rights. This uproar over a minor change to a popular Web site, however, highlights the lack of an active student stance in protesting other more important issues.
It may be difficult to argue that Facebook’s new policy was a strict violation of privacy rights since members join the online community voluntarily. Two years ago I signed up for Facebook, created a profile and used it on a daily basis to keep up with old friends. I was able to post appropriate details on my profile and leave out what I didn’t want others to know. Until this reaction to the news feed began, I had never felt that my privacy on Facebook would be an issue.
Though users are able to decide what content to post on Facebook, the Web site did make user profiles increasingly public with the news feed. The recent negative feedback that swept the online community was an example of students coming together to force some sort of change or progressive action. In this case, the action brought swift enhancements to Facebook’s privacy settings, which now allow members to control what information is included in the news feeds. Through the high amount of organized protest on Facebook, members created their own system of checks and balances between Facebook users and the site’s administrators.
This sort of exchange should not end in cyberspace. There are numerous issues here on campus that elicit student complaints and could be protested and changed. Last week’s events prove that students have the potential to influence policies with which they disagree, but they need to be willing to devote more energy to a given cause. While the fight for Facebook privacy was widespread, users did not have to exert much effort to get Zuckerberg’s attention.
I have overheard numerous complaints about campus changes, such as the loss of the J Street Starbucks or District Market, and these should have been attacked with the same energy and vigor. Students who have been inconvenienced by these changes should speak up by contacting administrators and organizing with other students and campus groups. It’s the issues that affect us directly that should motivate real action, similar to what happened with the Facebook situation.
Though it may seem difficult to give feedback at GW, University officials are generally receptive and willing to discuss our campus grievances. There is no better example of this than President Trachtenberg’s office hours, as advertised in a mass e-mail to the GW community. Our fearless leader invites us to meet with him four times during this semester, and this leaves us with no excuse not to address our gripes this semester. Just as Facebook users were able to voice their opinions and enact positive change, so too can GW students make a difference on campus.
-The writer is a senior majoring in American studies and minoring in journalism.