Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Are the "Like" button's benefits worth the privacy concerns?

I've been hesitant to put the Facebook "Like" button on our school district website, because it could violate your privacy:

  • Anytime your web browser tries to download a file from a server, it sends some information about itself
  • Anytime you visit a page with a "Like" button, your web browser tries to download a file from Facebook's server.
  • Therefore, Facebook knows every time you visit a page with a Like button on it.

If I put a "Like" button on one of our webpages, Facebook will know that you have visited the page, even if you don't click the button. Whether you're logged in to Facebook or not, the only way to block it is to make some atypical changes to your computer/web browser's default settings.

Is that enough of a reason to not use the "Like" button?


Protecting user privacy used to be an ideological hill that I would die on, but privacy has changed a lot in the past few years.

This kind of data-mining capability is now ubiquitous. Most social media "share" buttons (including Google's fancy new "+1") work the same way. All sites using Google Analytics count their hits by telling your computer to ping Google on every webpage. Pretty much all online advertisements you see have the same capability. The ubiquity has advantages -- you can hide in a sea of consumers, watchdog groups exist and keep things from getting out of hand -- but nothing's ever OK just because everyone else is doing it.

We are now much more comfortable with sharing. 600 million Facebook users. 156 million public blogs. 190 million Tweets each day. Ten years ago, we valued online privacy mainly because we didn't know what would happen if we didn't. In 2011, we've shared huge chunks of our lives and have a much better idea of where the lines are drawn...and they're drawn much more loosely than we thought.

"Like"-ing one of our news stories spreads the word that our schools are doing good things. That's the piece I can't ignore. It's too easy for people outside of education to assume that schools have gone downhill since they left, when the reality is that education is constantly changing for the better. Our community needs to be reminded just how many success stories happen here every day. If we can use "Like" buttons to keep the true stories of our teachers' success in front of false rumors about inefficiency, that's a powerful point that can't be overlooked.


I think it might be worth it now, but I don't feel right making that call myself. I want to know if the "Like" button is what our users want. I'm going to start explaining the situation and asking them, and see what their verdict is. If they know the privacy risks and still think it's OK, then there's not much reason to keep leaving those benefits on the table.

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