Kate's Party and the Problem With Facebook Privacy

Screencap via Knowyourmeme

Meet Kate. If Internet lore is to be believed, Kate's friend created an event on Facebook for her birthday party and forgot to select the closed button. Four days and a bunch of 4chan links later, "Kate's Party" faced over 60,000 RSVPs as well as a bunch of viral offshoot groups like "Help Clean Up After Kate's Party."

Twitter CEO Evan Williams famously brought up the fact that "Twitter is too hard" as explanation for the steps the company was taking to move past its current 106 million users at its developer conference earlier this month.

Facebook does not have this "too hard" problem; its more than 400 million-user base steadily increased by simplified login features like Facebook Connect and now the new "Like," "Open Social Graph," and "Social Plugins" announced at the F8 conference this past Wednesday.

For those that missed it, linking other stuff to your Facebook account is now easier than ever:

You can now "Like" stuff on other websites without being currently logged into Facebook. All that is required is that you've signed in to Facebook at some point before you visit the site.

Facebook has also made changes that let third party sites like Pandora and Yelp have access to personal info like your date of birth, sex, name, and email address. That's cool with me when it's an innocuous and in my opinion useful company like Pandora and not so cool if they ever decide to partner with a health insurance provider like Blue Cross or Aetna, for example.

What's pretty terrifying in the health insurance hypothetical is that even if I decide to opt out, my friends can still reveal my information to the company unless I block the "Social Plugins" application all together.

While I've already audited my settings, I'm one of the few savvy Internet users that actually types in the Facebook URL instead of Googling "Facebook." And again I'm not Facebook's target market. The fact that many users access Facebook through Google is testament that its reach extends way beyond the power user.

Screen shot 2010-04-25 at 9.52.26 PM.png
The Internet for me is not a hobby, it is my job. Test: Go on Facebook and look at your friends' "Likes," chances are the closer they are to working online, the more they've "Liked" stuff that relates directly to their work. Now look at what your mom or dad or Aunt Helen has "Liked." Notice a difference?

If you look at user patterns, Twitter is increasingly for media, and Facebook is increasingly for moms -- a smart move on Facebook's part considering the latter is a vastly larger market. Power users like Google's Matt Cutts know how to deactivate their Facebook accounts when privacy changes seem a little bit iffy, while my mom and Jessica Simpson apparently don't

The point driven home by stunts like Kate's Party and countless other failbook memes is that Facebook's current push for mass Internet domination has made using the service without technical understanding all too easy; One friend, when asked for a quote on what she thought about the new privacy settings, replied "What privacy settings?" This same user immediately set all her friend share settings to "No", and opted out of instant personalization, when given instructions on how to do so.

Update: According to a thread on Hacker News, "Kate," is the brainchild of notable Internet writer/troll David Thorne (shown above). The power of Facebook, indeed.

 Thorne confirms to the SF Weekly via email, "I made Kate, Jessica and the party up from scratch. It was interesting viral experiment."

Truth is stranger than fiction: In the wake of the "Kate's Party" prank, the Guardian UK discovers "privacy holes" in Facebook, and links to a list of Mark Zuckerberg's public events. 

Check out more "Like"-related action in "That's What She Liked: 20 Reasons Why You Should Audit Your Privacy Settings."

And follow us on Twitter at @alexiat and @sfweekly.

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