Archive for April, 2010

Facebook’s Eroding Privacy Policy, Visualized

Much has been said about Facebook’s new personalization features, the growing privacy concerns of its users – and the social network’s apparent oblivion to them.

I came across an interesting post by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights advocacy group, which highlighted excerpts of Facebook’s privacy policy over five years to “illustrate Facebook’s shift away from privacy.”

Curious, I created word clouds of Facebook’s 2005 policy excerpt and its current version.

Facebook Privacy Policy (2005): Facebook Privacy Policy (2010):

The contrast is stark.

As Kurt Opsahl, Senior Staff Attorney with EFF, puts it:

“Facebook originally earned its core base of users by offering them simple and powerful controls over their personal information. As Facebook grew larger and became more important, it could have chosen to maintain or improve those controls. Instead, it’s slowly but surely helped itself — and its advertising and business partners — to more and more of its users’ information, while limiting the users’ options to control their own information.”

Privacy pullback

When users are left with little or no control over their personal data — and settings go from “user specified” to “everyone,” members are bound to feel betrayed.

Facebook’s repeated bait and switch tactics have left thousands outraged. The latest changes have even sparked Congressional objections with Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Mark Begich (D-AK), and Al Franken (D-MN) writing a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, asking Facebook to “stand by its goal of creating open and transparent communities by working to ensure that its policies protect the sensitive personal biographical data of its users and provide them with full control over their personal information.”

Will the social network comply or has Facebook really turned evil?

Writer’s block? Climb cabinets. Lie on the floor

A feral child. 

A storm chaser. 

A mowing mailman. 

I’ve always been an admirer of Lane DeGregory’s work – especially her knack of finding fascinating subjects. A features reporter at the St. Petersburg Times, she prefers writing about people in the shadows. 

So, when a narrative fiction class I took at Georgetown demanded that we analyze a piece which “gives voice to the voiceless,” the choice was a no-brainer. I zeroed in on Lane’s The Girl in the Window, a beautifully woven narrative describing the journey of an abandoned, feral child from a cockroach-infested room to a family who loved her unconditionally. The piece went on to win the 2009 Pulitzer for Feature Writing

I was awestruck by Lane’s compelling descriptions, her choice of words and attention to detail – all seamlessly woven into the narrative.

She paints vivid scenes with detailed descriptions of the characters and the settings she witnessed.  (Tattered curtains, yellow with cigarette smoke, dangling from bent metal rods. Trash blanketing the stained couch, the sticky counters.)

She uses sensory details and dramatic visualization to offer snapshots into the life of Danielle, of those whose hearts were broken by the condition of this girl – and of those who were inspired to try to help her.

Her sentences – short, simple and powerful – take the reader through a series of emotions, which range from initial disgust at the conditions that Danielle was forced to live in for years to the unbelievable, unconditional love that her adoptive parents bestowed on her.

She listens for dialogues and not quotes, which is what makes Lane a powerful and compelling storyteller.

Inspired by her writing, I wondered if she would respond if I wrote to her. I took a chance. I looked up her e-mail id and wrote to her on a whim – never really expecting to hear from her. 

Less than 24 hours later, I had an e-mail from her waiting for me in my inbox. Not only did she respond to my e-mail with advice, she was extremely encouraging and also shared some tips on finding interesting stories.

I’ve saved the exchange of e-mails, starred and tucked them away into little, yellow folders titled, Inspiration. She probably doesn’t know the influence she has had on my writing but if you’re reading this, Lane: Thank you for taking the time to write back to an unknown journalism student, aspiring to be half the writer you are.

Every time I need a little inspiration, a story idea or a fresh approach, I revisit her e-mails – and it never fails to inspire. Sifting through my inbox the other day, I chanced upon Lane’s treasure trove of ideas. 

I thought I’d share some of my favorite ones on my blog:

Talk to strangers
Be a nosey neighbor, sit by the old woman on the swing, everyone has a story.

Read the walls
Check bulletin boards at libraries and laundromats, buy bad papers, scour the classifieds.

Sit the bench
Be a fly on the wall, eavesdrop at beauty parlors, eat lunch alone.

Ignore important people
See who’s in their shadows, who’s holding their coattails, write around celebrities.

Celebrate losers
Dreams don’t always come true, ask people about their failures, lessons learned.

Take stories no one else wants
Make people care, write for other sections, find a way it hasn’t been done.

Lie on the floor, climb on the cabinets
See stories from a new angle, write from a different perspective, seek other stakeholders.  

Lane has a very unique approach to reporting. She is “always on duty” in search of the unique, the bizarre, or sometimes the sad experiences of everyday folks. She always checks the bathroom cabinet and the inside of someone’s fridge (Love this tip!). You just never know what you’ll find. 

Lane writes about 100 feature stories per year. Yet, she estimates that editors reject 30 to 40 percent of her story ideas. The 43-year-old journalist says editors tell her she has two flaws: She sees stories everywhere, and she likes “really strange, freaky people.” 

The result can be extraordinary copy. Or have an editor rolling his eyes. 

Her solution? 

Write those stories anyway. And always look inside the fridge.

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