Facebook's aim, according to its website, is to create "greater understanding and connection" by making "the world more open and transparent." Smitha Ballyamanda found out what that benign-sounding ambition could mean in 2006, when her ex-boyfriend's girlfriend began stalking her on the social networking site.
The situation started out simply enough. Ballyamanda, then a 23-year-old medical student in Miami, got repeated "friend" requests from the woman. Hoping to stop further contact, Ballyamanda blocked the woman from seeing her Facebook profile. But things only got worse. Her stalker created false accounts to befriend Ballyamanda and her friends. Then she hacked Ballyamanda's Hotmail and Facebook accounts and began sending bizarre e-mails to Ballyamanda's friends, family, and most embarrassingly, professional contacts. One message said that Ballyamanda was dropping out of medical school because she was pregnant. "I had my entire world turned upside down," Ballyamanda says.
As she regained control of her online identity, Ballyamanda deactivated her Facebook account. But she had second thoughts when she realized she'd cut her social lifeline. "That was my way of keeping in touch with people," says Ballyamanda, now a resident in family medicine in Philadelphia. Eventually she created a new account. But this time she read the fine print: She studied Facebook's privacy controls, and then she created an elaborate system to control what her contacts could see—and, more important, what they couldn't.
Countless such privacy-related minidramas have already played out behind the scenes of the world's largest social network. Now, with hundreds of millions of users, and firms like Google eager to take on Facebook with social networks of their own, it's a good time to ask: How many of us are ready for total transparency?
Transparency, in this case, means widely revealing personal details that you might ordinarily share with just a small subset of people. "Facebook is driving this idea that they want us to live more public lives," says Alice Marwick, a social media researcher at Microsoft Research New England, in Cambridge, Mass. In The Facebook Effect, a recent history of the social network, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg told author David Kirkpatrick that he envisions a society in which "you have one identity"—where "having a different image for your work friends or coworkers and for the other people you know" will no longer be possible or even desirable.
But this vision of a world full of indiscriminate sharing is not realistic, Marwick says: "We've always wanted to provide different types of information to different groups of people." For Ballyamanda, keeping those different groups apart now defines her Facebook experience.