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The anatomy of a privacy meme - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

The anatomy of a privacy meme [May. 8th, 2010|10:43 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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On the day Facebook introduced "instant personalization," I updated my status to this:
Facebook has sneakily rolled out a terrible "feature" to give your data to 3rd party websites, and GUESS WHAT, they opted you in without asking you. Go to Account --> Privacy Settings --> Applications and Websites & disable "Instant Personalization." Tell your friends.
The "tell your friends" part was entirely intentional — I was trying to get it to go viral. I had two goals for doing so: one, I wanted to express my frustration at Facebook's actions by inflicting a non-trivial amount of damage to them (in terms of getting users to opt out), and second, I wanted to see if it was really true that most people just didn't care about privacy any more.

Searching for public statuses a few days later revealed a hundred or so that originated from mine, including the inevitable mutations. Keep in mind that users whose statuses are public are much less likely to pass on a message about privacy, and so the true number of status messages is probably an order of magnitude higher. Assuming that each such user opted out of instant personalization themselves and also got a few of their friends to do so, that would mean that several thousand users opted out. Very gratifying, in terms of either of the abovementioned goals.

The interesting thing about memes is that they almost always either die out quickly, or go viral to reach a significant fraction of the population. Those that reach some intermediate level of success, like mine did, are rare. This means that a tiny difference in the original wording could have caused it to collapse or to explode. (For the mathematically inclined, this is because it changes the "branching factor" of the meme.)

A meme, like a virus, has two components — the payload and the replication mechanism. The payload is the part of the meme that urges you to do something. The replication mechanism is the part that urges you to pass it on. As you can imagine, changes in the wording of the latter have a particularly huge effect on the branching factor.

For example, it is entirely possible that if I'd ended my message with "Tell your friends!" instead of "Tell your friends.", it would have spread to ten times as many users. This mystifying power that tiny strings of text have over masses of intelligent human beings is what makes memes a fascinating object of study for researchers and a salivating prospect for marketers.

Even as I wrote my original message, I knew exactly how to word the replication mechanism to maximize impact, but I didn't because I felt it wouldn't be truthful. But someone else figured it out:
FB Privacy heads up! As of today, there is a new privacy setting called "Instant Personalization," which shares data with non-facebook websites, and is automatically set to "Allow. "Go to Account>Privacy Settings>Applications & Websites->Instant Personalization and UN-CHECK "Allow." Please copy and repost because if you 'un-check' this and your friends don't, your friends are still sharing info about you!
That meme got started the same day (around two weeks ago), and is still going strong, being reposted at the rate of once every minute or so, and that's just the public statuses, on a Saturday night! I'd estimate that tens of millions of users have seen that message.

Note the difference: while my meme appealed to people's altruism to get them to replicate it, this one appeals to their self-interest :-) "Repost this for your own good." It amuses me to think about whether users who copy-paste that are actually hoping to get every single one of their friends to opt out. Needless to say, it doesn't significantly affect you if your friends opt out or not (which I why I didn't feel comfortable using the more powerful wording.)

If there is a lesson in all of this, it is that if privacy advocates seek to have any real effect on user behavior, they need to stop pontificating and learn to craft a successful meme. Or more generally: go where the users are, word your messages in a way that appeals to users' concerns, and make it easy for users to follow them. Because the groups that benefit from users giving up their privacy have long mastered the art of creating killer memes.

[User Picture]From: countrycousin
2010-05-09 12:02 pm (UTC)
I heard about that from a many different sources, several on FB.

Yeah, the self-interest one is probably a bit more effective, but there are lots out there who will forward/pass on something they think ought to be known.

I didn't see the message, post-to-save-yourself one. People are beginning to learn to check some of these claims out, but you apparently saw evidence that a lot still are not. I've been trying to post/repost some of these along with warnings about not putting private info on FB, and had to talk down an old lady last night from quitting. She hardly ever posts and is on mostly to hear about her grandkids, but she was ready to leave. It's her grandkids (and mine - cousins to her grandkids) that I'm most concerned about. Kids have natural interests that others will hold against them, later. FB isn't the place to exercise them.
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