May 18, 2010 -- Want to know which Web users are cheating on tests, playing hooky from work or bashing their bosses?
Launched last week by a trio of San Francisco-based software engineers and developers, Openbook aggregates all public Facebook posts into one constantly updated stream and lets visitors query the site for anything of interest.
The founders said the point of the site is to draw attention to the amount of information about users Facebook makes public. To highlight the potential social consequences of making so much information visible and searchable, Openbook suggests especially sensitive search terms, such as "rectal exam," "lost my virginity" and "divorce trial."
Will Moffat, 32, one of the site's founders, said he was playing around with Facebook's public API (application programming interface) when he suddenly realized just how much personal information Facebook controls.
"I was just gobsmacked by the results," he said.
As concerns build about Facebook's approach to privacy, Moffat said he and his partners, Peter Burns and James Home, decided to use their technical know-how to really show users what can happen with public information on Facebook.
Do Average Facebook Users Know What Public Really Means?
"Because we work the data and manipulate it for a living, we're much more used to the idea that anything out there is out there forever and can be linked [and searched]," he said. But the average Facebook users might not understand the full consequences of making their information available to everyone, he added.
"The implications of that are massive and a lot of people don't get it," Moffat said. "It's a very abstract problem. The question is can we convince people that it is actually a real problem, not just a theoretical one."
He said Facebook not only does a less than adequate job of communicating to users how public each piece of shared information will be, they change up the rules too frequently, generating mass confusion.
"I love Facebook and I'm pretty sure the other guys like it too, it's just the erosion of privacy over time," he said. "I feel a bit like a frog in hot water. Each time it was annoying but not too bad."
But he said that Facebook's latest round of changes, which opened up even more public information to other developers and Web sites, "really was the last straw."
Openbook, he said, was an attempt to encourage Facebook to take privacy seriously and educate users about the implications of their own online privacy decisions.
A quick Openbook search for "hate my boss," for example, reveals a long list of personally-identifiable posts from disgruntled employees who don't seem the least bit concerned that their bosses could easily read their status updates.
Moffat said he thinks Facebook needs to more clearly indicate to users when their candid, sometimes off-color, comments are about to fly off into the Internet.
Facebook Alerts Users Before They Post to 'Everyone'
But a Facebook spokesman said that Facebook does tell users when they're about to post to the Internet for the first time.
"When we launched the new 'Posts by me' setting, we showed a tool tip," he said. "The first time a user posts with 'Everyone' selected, they will see an 'about to post to Everyone' image. The first time a user changes this setting from the publisher, they'll see a 'changing setting' image."
And some Facebook users say they know quite well that once they hit the "share" button, their messages can be spread far and wide.
"Everything is public. If I put a picture up there or something like that or I post, I expect the public to see it," said James Wyke, a 29-year-old process engineer from Carrollton, Ohio. "If you put it on the Internet, it's not private."
He said he's been a Facebook member for about four years and has never been concerned about security or privacy.
On Monday, he posted, "cheated test. haha I just wanna be on openbook."
But he said that, jokes aside, he's very careful about what he says online.
"To me, it would be stupid to post something about my boss," he said.
Facebook Users Should Post Responsibly, Tech Editor Says
But some industry observers say they wouldn't be surprised if there are Facebook users unintentionally sharing personal details with the world.
"I definitely think there are people sharing on Facebook, despite the warnings, who still don't get it," said Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of the tech blog Search Engine Land.
When Facebook forced users to update their privacy settings in December, he said the suggested privacy setting for status updates was "everyone," which may have shifted some to the most public setting without realizing it.
Even so, he said that for new accounts Facebook does "provide a great deal of support." While the default setting is "everyone," before users can share their first post they are told in a pop-up message box that their status updates will be "available to everyone on the Internet."
They are also told that they can change the default setting by visiting the privacy settings page.
"If you post something from Facebook, you should take responsibility for what you're doing," he said.
How Are Twitter and Facebook Different?
Still, Sullivan pointed out that though people post similarly personal ? and sometimes intimate ? messages on Twitter, the two sites come with very different sets of expectations.
Twitter has always been public and Facebook has historically been more private and friends-oriented, he said.
"With Twitter, it's all or nothing. With Facebook, you've got all of these settings, it may not be so clear that you're sharing to the world," he said.
Sullivan also said that while people may be accustomed to searching Twitter comments to see what people are saying, until Openbook came along, people didn't realize that Facebook could provide a similar experience.
Facebook users can search "Posts by Everyone," from the site itself, but it requires several clicks through Facebook search pages, he pointed out.
"[Openbook] is the first time where it has been very easy to see what people are sharing on Facebook, it just may not have penetrated people's awareness," he said.