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In the not-too-distant past, I remember fondly getting an email notification from Facebook that one of my friends had sent me a message or “poked” me virtually. I happily clicked over to Facebook to see what someone had said or done, and responded in kind. Now, my reaction to getting the same kinds of notifications has changed, and I dread clicking through to see what kind of spam or scam is coming my way.

First, there were the messages from business colleagues, saying I should load an application to find out who my “secret crush” was. It seemed like a throwback to high school, and then I found out that this application actually loaded adware onto unsuspecting people’s computers. Then I started to get messages from people I didn’t know who were inviting me to check out their profiles on other sites — a kind of spam to promote other services. Then people started mass-mailing videos or “pass forward” Fun Wall messages that ended up being scams.

Not much has changed in the online world of spam and scams, it’s just that the scammers have found new venues for their malicious games. But the bigger problem is for Facebook, once a closed network that you could trust that is, day by day, losing trust with its members. When I asked MediaShift readers if they trusted Facebook, no one stood up for the service without reservations. And a Technorati search for “do you trust facebook” brought up various bloggers who had inactivated their accounts or were upset with possible privacy concerns at the burgeoning social network.

The one caveat with this type of unscientific polling is that the people who do trust Facebook probably wouldn’t bother writing a blog post entitled, “Why I Trust Facebook.” In these circumstances, it’s more common to hear from people who are upset and disgruntled and not hear a peep from those that are satisfied.

But still, what’s most distressing for Facebook is that they seem to be losing some of the magic that led everyone to use the service in the first place. Here’s a quick rundown on some reasons that people say they are fed up with the service:

> “I started getting all of this spam from people I did not know at all…Further, I was getting leery of my high school (private school alum) and law school running after me for money.” — Jennifer

> “I had set up a couple of Facebook groups as a way to communicate with members of a PTA committee and also for a non-profit student group. With the Beacon issue being what I perceived as a major flip in privacy policy, I couldn’t in good conscience, maintain those groups in Facebook. I notified my subscribers, rolled up the groups and left Facebook.” — Greg

> “With email, I own the data, which is not the case on Facebook. If I get kicked out from Facebook, I’ll still have my email archives, but will lose access to everything that Facebook had about me.” — Tristan Nitot, founder of Mozilla Europe, explaining on his blog why he doesn’t want people to message him through Facebook

> “The whole Beacon incident has made me realize that I can’t trust Facebook to the same degree that I trust Google.” — software developer Vlod Kalicun

There was also a thread of resignation to the fact that everything we do online compromises our privacy so there’s not much we can do about it if we want to live in this world. Graham MacDougall put it this way:

I really don’t trust companies storing this kind of personal information. However, Gmail has access to way more personal information about me than Facebook or others, so perhaps the Facebook argument is moot. It’s just yet another platform where our behaviors can be analyzed on the macro and micro levels to give more companies opportunities to market to us.

Some Positive Signs

I was surprised that many people had more nuanced takes on the privacy issues around Facebook. A few mentioned that they do read each site’s Terms of Service [TOS] before they give out personal information or they severely limit the amount of personal info they would share online.

“I can’t really say that I don’t trust [Facebook], but then again, I do not have very much personal information placed on the site,” wrote Angela Michelle Smith. “What I think is pertinent for the average networker is to carefully read the TOS of Facebook or any other social network site in order to know without question exactly what they are signing themselves up for. That’s the best way to protect yourself, in my opinion.”

Camille had a similar take on Facebook and giving out personal info online, saying that people had to educate themselves on what they were doing before acting.

“If you want to use these accounts, well that’s fine. If you don’t want to, well that’s fine also,” she wrote. “All I’m going to say is that I personally don’t trust anything that is online…I just don’t put personal info on there. Life is too short to be afraid of the times that are changing. I say, face it with intelligence and caution if you decide to go this route.”

Privacy advocate and web developer Paul Hyland wondered who he could trust at all online, and figured that his life already was an open book online and that the genie was already out of the bottle.

“I think it’s important for people to understand the limitations of privacy online, and the potential threat of exposure or exploitation of your information, not only by those to whom you entrust it, but by third parties who gain access to it either through negligence or trickery, and then to be prepared to deal with the consequences,” he wrote. “I have to say that I’m encouraged by some recent developments, however. Facebook’s announcements recently have seemed a little more sophisticated in their acknowledgment of privacy concerns, and their recent membership in the DataPortability Workgroup is a positive sign.”

Indeed. I also recently noticed that there’s a dedicated “Privacy” button in the upper right-hand portion of the Facebook site that leads through to an easy-to-use slider page that lets you adjust privacy settings on everything from pokes to search. Despite all the privacy complaints, Facebook still has the time and enough millions of rabid users to try to, uh, save face.

What do you think? Do you trust or mistrust Facebook, and why? What privacy features could they add to earn back your trust? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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