The highs and lows of parenting and real estate.

Facebook Private Messages Aren’t So Private

I could totally never be a serious investigative reporter (I know, this is like sincerely shocking news to you because usually you read this blog and think to yourself, She should really consider becoming a serious investigative reporter. She would blow the MFing lid off the skinny jeans scandal.). I would totally get way too excited about the story I was breaking and end up blurting out, “No for reals, guys, there’s this whole thing about Nixon and a hotel that he like bugged, well, except that HE didn’t bug it, some guys who worked for him did, but he totally knew about it and it’s like no joke a really big deal! I’m not telling it right, but it’s a scandal. No, seriously!”

So I’m going to try really hard not to spaz out right now, but: GUYS. I TOTALLY HAVE LIKE AN EXPOSE THAT’S NOT EVEN ABOUT BOXED WINE.

I mean… it’s not about world hunger or war or anything either, but it’s completely important and newsworthy. And it’s even about something I’m practically a qualified expert in: Facebook.

No really, stay with me. If you’re on Facebook at all, I’m sure you saw that viral post that went around briefly last week about old private messages being made public, right? I saw it and sort of ignored it because it seemed crazy, and people post crazy things all the time. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for Facebook to let something like that happen. But I did make a mental note to check it out for myself. I figured it should be fairly easy to confirm or deny.

Then I forgot about the whole thing until Saturday when I was messing around on Facebook trying to avoid the cleaning that needed doing. And because I am Queen of the Universe when it comes to finding something more important to do than cleaning, I launched my investigation of what was up with this whole private messages thing.

I started by going to my own timeliney thing and clicking on the year 2008. I hadn’t really looked at how that stuff is set up on my page or anyone else’s before then. Apparently you can click on a year and it sort of recaps that year for whoever is currently stalking you. One of the first things in the right hand column was a box that said, “65 friends posted on Elizabeth’s timeline”. I scrolled through this little box and immediately noticed while some of these messages had been written on my wall, some looked like they had been privately messaged to me.

Let’s pause here to make sure we understand and define a little bit of Facebook technology before we move forward:

Writing on someone’s wall – This is when you go to another person’s page and write directly on it. Doing this makes the message viewable by all of the friends of the person whose wall you wrote on, but it means the statement is directed at him or her. You used to only be able to see these types of posts if you made a point to go to that person’s wall, but now they show up in the feed like other types of status updates, designated with both of your names to show this was a message from you to that person. Other people can comment on the message and join in on the conversation. You do this if you’re an attention-whore and you like to broadcast your conversations with your sister about the perfect way to curl your hair to all of your friends. I often employ this technique.

Private messaging someone – This is when you hit the ‘message’ button and send an actual personal message directly to another person. It does not show up on his or her wall or anywhere in the feed. It’s used for totally private conversations (bootie calls) and often to send personal contact information like cell numbers or email addresses.

Now, I’m not saying this whole ‘writing on someone’s wall’ thing wasn’t a little confusing at first to most, but in general, everyone but my grandma figured out the difference between the two fairly quickly (just kidding, Grandma! You totally get Facebook! It was a joke. I believe in God and never say the ‘f’ word, I swear. Love you). You only have to think you’re messaging your husband, “Hey, babe, stop at the store and get me some tampons on the way home, will you? Playtex, Super+. Thanks, love you.” and then go to his wall and see five of his coworkers ‘liked’ it, once before you learn that lesson, amIright?

Back to my investigation Saturday.

As soon as I saw a couple of messages in that box that looked like they had probably been private, I immediately hovered over the top right corner and chose the option to ‘hide these types of posts from timeline’ in all years 2010 and previous. I didn’t even really look closely at what all of the posts were because the idea I had private messages that were made public for any length of time completely freaked me out.

Even after seeing what I was fairly certain were private messages showing up in my timeline, I wasn’t 100% convinced Facebook had allowed this to happen. Where was the community outrage? Shouldn’t I have heard more about this than one viral Facebook message posted by a knee-jerk alarmist? Maybe I could see those posts on my own wall because I was logged in as me, I thought. Maybe it just looked like they were visible to the public, but I was the only one who could see them.

So I did what any other normal, completely nosy wife with little-to-no respect for personal boundaries does, I stalked my husband’s timeline. Almost immediately, in the 2008 section I hit jackpot:

This is a screenshot I took of my husband’s timeline this morning. See that box to the right that is titled, Friends 2008? Down at the bottom of the box are several messages from my best friend, Rebecca Disbrow Wall. I cropped those out so you could read them a little better:

In May of 2008 I turned 30 and my husband and my best friend threw me a surprise birthday party at her house. My husband’s sister, Jen, flew in from Portland, OR for the event. Apparently Rebecca and Jason began the planning of this event over Facebook private message.

Even more fascinatingly, if you go to 2008 on her wall, you get the other side of the private conversation:

The conversation doesn’t seem to match together flawlessly, so it’s possible there are some messages missing in here (or maybe it makes more sense with the specific profile pic in place they were referring to), but I’ve talked to both of them and they are both adamant this was a PRIVATE MESSAGE conversation. And of course it was. It’s not like I just woke up last week a stalker. I was totally a stalker way back in 2008. I regularly visited my husband and all of my closest friends’ walls just to see if anything interesting was going on there. Hmm, I wonder if that hot girl at Jason’s work ever writes on his wall… I absolutely would have seen any suspicious activity like this and known there was a party in the works. Plus, both are tech-savvy people. They definitely knew the difference between private message and writing on someone’s wall.

After I discovered this ‘smoking gun’ (as far as I’m concerned), I set off to figure out if other people know about this and I just hadn’t heard it yet. I headed to the site I’ve always trusted to know the truth about wacky shit people swear is true: Snopes had the rumor, all right, but for the first time I’ve seen, they have the verdict incorrect:

I did a screenshot of this because I feel pretty confident it will eventually be changed to show 'True' or at the very least 'Mixed'.

Snopes cites Mashable, Tech Crunch and even Facebook as explaining that people were just confusing old wall posts, that were always visible to the public, with private messages.

Uh… nope. Snopes. Facebook. Other techy sites I’ve heard of but don’t really know anything about. I’m shaking my head at all of you. You’re just wrong.

And this is just wrong. It’s really not OK for about 11 million reasons. Sure, these messages are years old and it didn’t ruin my party to have them published. I don’t think there was anything really super private and wacky in the ones on my wall that I hid before I could even really go through them. Plus it’s sort of difficult to even get a handle on what’s being said because you’re only reading one side of the conversation. But these are PRIVATE MESSAGES. My sister recently messaged her two kids’ social security numbers to our grandpa’s wife because she needed them to set up a school savings account for the kids. I often have people message me real estate questions on Facebook because it’s faster than tracking down my email address. They regularly disclose personal financial information and home addresses in these messages. There is a reason we send these things privately.

Lastly, before you scurry off to hide the messages on your timeline (don’t worry, I’ve already read them all. I won’t tell anyone), think about this: Sure, you can quickly and easily hide the stuff that people wrote on YOUR wall, but you can’t do anything about the private messages you wrote to other people several years ago. Remember when you were mad at your mother because she forgot she was supposed to babysit, so you messaged your sister about how mom’s always been a selfish bitch? And then you got over it because she apologized and she’s totally not a selfish bitch and you didn’t give it a second thought because that was a million years ago and mom wasn’t even on Facebook then and you said it to your sister in a PRIVATE MESSAGE? Yeah. I wonder if that’s on your sister’s wall now for your mom to discover? And let’s just think about what you can’t even remember messaging to people 3-4 years ago. I have to admit that’s sort of keeping me up at night.

OK, now you can go hide your messages. But forward this post to all your friends right after you do (not because I want lots of people to read my blog, I swear. Only for the good of humanity.).


45 Responses to Facebook Private Messages Aren’t So Private

  1. I wanted to share and tweet this and spread the word far and wide but that would result in my wife IMMEDIATELY digging into my timeline before I can hide it all, which is bad. Also, there’s no “hide all” button…you have to do each one individually. This is awful and I can’t tell anyone about it.

    • Set “who can see what others post on your timeline” in timeline privacy settings to “only me”. Unwanted posts can then be individually removed from your timeline before changing the setting back. DO NOT simply hide the “friends posted on your timeline” boxes as some blogs are suggesting, that’s only a summary in the year’s Highlights and DOES NOT HIDE the posts in All Posts for a month.

      • Yeah, I wasn’t understanding this, but I looked further into it and you are both totally right. It’s not as easy as I thought to hide them.

  2. HOLY FREAKING CRAP R U SERIOUS???? UH I mean oh, uh that’s interesting, uh ya (as I’m frantically going through fb records in my brain). What if you close your fb could people still retreve that info? Come on special agent Mini can you investigate that. Maybe we should all close and reopen accounts and see if it disappears??

  3. Closing my account.

  4. Totally true. Just looked at mine and there are some I know were private that are on the damn page!

  5. Ruh Roh.RUH ROH.

  6. Ugh, this is awful! Not good when I remember that time I dated the gay guy in the Army…

  7. I kinda wish I’d taken some good screenshots before I hid all of mine from the timeline. So interesting that so many people/organizations are still denying it. I wonder how many people like you it will take to bring the Illuminati down.

    • Screenshots alone wouldn’t do it, above all you would need PROOF to support your claim that they were historically private, and not just old wall posts. For example, has anyone used “Download a copy of your Facebook data” in account settings before the messages appeared in timeline? The case against facebook could be proved if the posts by others in an old download did not include these messages.

      • I agree that this ‘proof’ isn’t enough to convict in court because it still relies on their memory of the conversation being private. But you have to admit it’s a pretty strong circumstantial case. It just doesn’t make sense if you assume these were ‘accidental wall posts’.

        • Facebook will say that with 900m users statistically someone somewhere will be able to produce some hard historical evidence to support this, otherwise it’s a very strong case for them, it doesn’t affect all users so the others must be mistaken. But obviously facebook is not going to tell the world what evidence is needed.

          In any case the same privacy issue applies to people who did (accidentally or not) make inappropriate wall posts to a few friends in the distant past – these have now been deliberately resurrected by timeline and may be visible to hundreds of new friends.

  8. This is the first convincing post I have read about this case.

    Do you know if these messages were written in the chat or private messages? Some say that only chat messages were affected.

    • That’s an interesting distinction and I don’t know. I will ask them if they remember. I know, in general, my husband prefers chat (and he mentions in the convo that she was ‘quick’ so I’m assuming that means she replied fast), so if I had to guess, I would say chat.

      • Private messages. I’m never online at the same time Jason is.

        • If I’m not online when a PM arrives facebook sends a “New message from xxx” notification email to my hotmail. If someone posts on my wall I get a “xxx posted on your Wall” email. If you keep your emails you should be able go back and to confirm what you received.

  9. There’s a reason that you see one side of the conversation on one wall and the other side of the conversation on the other wall.

    “Constine notes that it can be hard to remember the way Facebook worked or the way we used it back in the day. Without comments, people would have conversations by exchanging wall posts, and any one taken out of context might seem like a private messages. We also might not have been as careful with what we posted to walls back then before everyone’s co-workers, boss, and grandma had a Facebook account — I know that I was personally surprised to see the messages I posted on others’ walls when looking back today. Facebook felt like a different, cozier place four years ago.”

    - Source = TechCrunch

    Not only that…but there could have been individual privacy settings…like they could have set it so only they could read what each other was writing but it still appeared on the wall.

    • Sean, you don’t find that quote frankly insulting? Because I do. In 2009 I had been on Facebook for 2 years (and so had my friend and my husband). We aren’t morons. My husband is a web developer. We understood the technology. The idea that she wrote on his wall and then he clicked over to her wall to reply is just insane. And it’s not what happened.

      • Err, you may not remember it that way – but that’s exactly how it worked. You clicked reply on a post on your wall and it went to their wall.

        • Wall-to-wall could look like private messaging for people unexperienced with computers and web. As Elizabeth is writing, her husband and Rebecca are “tech-savvy” people, and would not do such a mistake.

          *If* they had been, Elizabeth would have seen those messages on her husbands wall, spoiling the surprise.

          I don’t think they would have used wall-to-wall, and changed the privacy-settings to hide it for Elizabeth. Much more simple to write a private message + they would have remembered it today (“oh, we just hid it for Elizabeth for other people to join the planning”). And I do not think you could specify privacy settings on wall posts in 2008.

          I was skeptical too. But this blog post really convinced me! Elizabeth seems like she really can see the difference between a wall post and a private message. Not just “oh, this is really embarrassing, this MUST have been a private message. I would never tell about my illness on my friends wall.”

      • How is it insulting? They are explaining how it used to work and it’s clear people aren’t remembering that. This is exactly what happened. It’s completely ridiculous for you to think that Facebook wasn’t like that when it most certainly was.

        The “like” function was introduced in April of 2010: Source 1 | Source 2

        The “comments” on wall posts was introduced a year earlier in April of 2009: Source 1 | Source 2

        If you’ll read the mashable link I provided about the comments on people’s wall you will see that in 2009 this article’s author thought that going back and forth between walls to have a conversation was dumb. The second link also points out that this is a new feature (in 2009).

        So why in the world you would claim that Facebook wasn’t like that is just completely ridiculous. The power of suggestion is strong and the memory of how things worked and how open we used to be is weak.

        You are absolutely wrong about Facebook conversations being “like that” a few years ago.

  10. Here is the other item that isn’t mentioned of why I (the BFF) know that this is an issue – I have utilized the options to limit viewing/commenting for certain people since I started on Facebook in November of 2007. I created a limited friend group that allowed users to see minimal information and only contact me via private message (ie.: no wall posts). One of the people (and I really apologize that I’m saying this in a blog where people might know the person) that is shown above wishing me a “Happy Birthday” was in this group. The only way he could have told me Happy Birthday is by sending me a private message.

    • Sounds like “proof” to me!

      • A stronger case than most of seen, but perhaps there’s another a bug in facebook’s privacy settings so that all friends get “It’s Rebecca’s birthday, write on her wall” invite from facebook despite not being able to on other days. You would still need something like the original “New message from xxx” notification email from facebook to confirm this really was a PM and enable a technical investigator to trace what has happened to it since.

  11. I’m so glad you posted about this. It’s indeed an issue. We posted about it as well and have been inundated with screenshots like yours and comments from readers.

    For what it’s worth, the denial by Tech Crunch, Mashable, Snopes are all just a single quote from a PR rep from Facebook. No investigation at all.

    I also don’t understand why people aren’t taking this more seriously either. But with posts like yours, hopefully they start to.

    • Thanks for reading! And I agree, the denial is super half-assed (and frankly offensive, we are not all idiots).

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