Privacy: The Price of Being Online?

As much as I wish I could be at this year’s SXSWi, I have enjoyed reading the keynote speech reports from social media scouts like Techcrunch and also the tidbits floating on social media venues from my friends who are there. That is the beauty of this new media world, instant- knowledge sharing, and impact-amplification. Joining this new knowledge-sharing force, I personally feel I have become a thousand times more resourceful and knowledgeable than I could ever be otherwise. That is one of the things I love most about social media.

But there are always pay-offs for the advantages that social media have brought to us. SXSWi’s keynote speaker Danah Boyd’s speech about how social media messes with people’s personal and public lives really struck a cord with me, as recently I have been trying to redraw the line between my personal and public activities on the internet. It is especially hard for me to do so because social media to me is not just a personal space, it is also a professional setting since I want to develop a career within it.

For most of my friends who do not have this dual identity issue with social media, they may probably have easier answers to this problem: purge employer-unfriendly content from their profiles before they apply for a job, or just completely close off their Facebook account and limit the content only to private friends. The pre-requisite here is that people believe and actually do have control over their content online. In Boyd’s speech, she also noted how important this sense of control plays in people’s feelings of their online privacy, and when this control gets breached, people will feel their privacy has been violated.

But do people actually have as tight a grip over their online content as they feel they do? Unfortunately, not all the time. Even though sometimes they do, this control is still very vulnerable and largely subject to a social media platform’s arbitrary changes. In Boyd’s speech, she named the two recent privacy blunders by Google Buzz and Facebook. Everybody has already known about the damage Google caused due to their eagerness to get people immediately Buzzing on their network, and therefore forgot that “you want to help users understand the proposition. You need to ease them in, invite them to contribute their content.”(Boyd)

But for Facebook, I assume even until today most Facebook users still have not even noticed the damage they have caused. Three months ago, Facebook changed the default setting for people’s profile to open to “everyone”. I have been noticing in the past three months, for every new person I have met, though their Facebook profile may be locked, their pictures are totally open for me to view. I’ll bet 90% of these people do not have any idea that their pictures are open to everyone on Facebook. Boyd also noted this unfortunate situation: she asked around and had not yet found any non-techie Facebook users whose actual Facebook privacy settings matched the settings they thought were in place. That is a really terrible breach of people’s trust of their content to Facebook. Whoever is reading this blog post, please go back and check your Facebook pictures’ privacy settings and make the necessary adjustments.

Thanks Jason Kincaid for bringing Boyd’s speech to us, these are other great takeaways from Boyd’s speech:

“Different groups of people think about privacy. Teenagers are much more conscious about what they have to gain by being in public, whereas adults are more concerned about what they have to lose.”

“Most techies think about Personally Identifiable Information, but that the vast majority of people are thinking about personally embarrassing information. People often share private information with their friends in part because it allows them to bond, it makes them somewhat vulnerable and establishes trust.”

Given these findings, there is really a great deal for social media platform designers to think about when they handle the content and privacy people have put into their hands. When they are writing the code for their platform, designers are also setting up the laws for interacting in a digital age. As responsible legislators of the online world, they have to seriously consider if these laws being drafted can effectively uphold the order of that world and can protect their citizens’ security. More careful thoughts and consideration needs to be invested, otherwise these citizens may riot and retreat from that unstable world.


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