3 Privacy and Publics

Online norms around privacy are dynamic, and stakes are high.

Diana Daly

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When you use social media, who are you communicating with? And who else is paying attention? This chapter is about producing, consuming, and controlling online content. It’s also about the data, cultural norms, and terms of service that you create, accept, and influence.

Not “the public” – They’re publics, and they’re networked

Let’s go back to that ampitheater in Chapter 2. We envisioned an athlete on the ground, spewing insults about her opponent. (Yes, there were women athletes and gladiators in Ancient Rome.) I imagine the athlete shouting, “I say before the public that my opponent has the stench of a lowlife latrine!” And we have a mass of spectators roaring in approval, disapproval, excitement, laughter.

Statue of female gladiator performing for one or more publics in Ancient Rome
Statue of woman gladiator performing for one or more publics in Ancient Rome

That mass of spectators is . The definition of a public is complicated (see danah boyd, It’s Complicated pp 8-9). But for simplicity’s sake I define a public as “people paying sustained attention to the same thing at the same time.”

When the gladiator calls the mass of spectators “the public” it deepens the effect of her insult to suggest that “everyone in the world” is watching. Although it is imaginary, “” is a powerful idea or “construct” that people refer to when they want to add emphasis to the effects of one-to-many speech. But really, there is no “the public.” There is never a moment when everyone in the world is paying sustained attention to the same thing at the same time. There only are various publics, overlapping each other, with one person potentially sharing in or with many different publics.

If you use social media, you interact with many publics that are connected to one another through you and likely through many others. Publics that intersect and connect online are “” (pg. 8.) In the terminology of social network analysis, whenever an individual connects two networked publics (or any two entities, such as two other people), that connector is called a . Think about the publics you form a bridge between. How are you uniquely placed to spread information across multiple publics by forming bridges between and among them?

Bridging information between publics can be exciting, and controversial. Networked publics really work each other up, forming opinions, practices, and norms together. And they occasionally get in fights in the stands, clubbing each other with ancient Roman hot dogs and Syrian tabouleh.

Privacy Norms in Online Publics

​It is important to understand networked publics because they help us understand that the dichotomy of private vs public is an oversimplification of social relationships. ​When you post on social media, even if you post “publicly,” you probably envision certain people or publics as your audience.

Controlling the privacy of social media posts is much more complex than controlling the privacy of offline communication. On social media, as boyd notes, what you post is public by default, private by design (It’s Complicated, p. 61). Face-to-face, you can generally see who is paying attention and choose whether to speak to them, making your communications – note that is flipped from how it is on social media. While popular media claim younger generations do not care about privacy, there is a great deal of evidence that youth care a lot about privacy and are developing norms to strategically protect it.

Norms take time. There are norms that societies have developed over many centuries of face-to-face communication. These offline norms have long helped members of these societies get along with each other, and negotiate and protect their privacy. Let’s study one of these offline norms: civil inattention.

Civil inattention

It’s time to imagine an awkward face-to-face scenario, together. You’re in an eatery, which is bustling with people. You’re engaged in a conversation with two friends – and suddenly a passing stranger stops to lean over you and tries to join in your conversation. Another person from the next table over is also blatantly staring at you and your friends talking. You weren’t even talking to these people, and now they’re in your business!

Crowd at Katz’s Deli in NYC​: Social situations like these would be impossible to navigate without the norm of civil inattention

That scenario is unlikely to happen in real life, because of a social norm sociologist Erving Goffman named . In crowded spaces, civil inattention is the common understanding – by you and by others in that society – that you don’t get in other people’s business. You may acknowledge that you are sharing the space with them through small interactions, such as holding the door for the person behind you, making eye contact, and nodding or smiling. But you don’t stare, or listen in, or join in without an invitation.

So is civil inattention also an online norm? Well, that may depend on who we are and which publics we interact with online.

The online world is young, and norms in our networked publics are still being decided. Online norms are also dynamic, which means they are based on a changing set of deciders, including software developers and evolving publics of users. It could be that the most effective forms of privacy protection online will be based on social and cultural norms as we develop these.

But once we figure out what works in the online world in terms of privacy, we will have to articulate it – and then fight for it, because our data is immensely profitable for developers of the platforms we use.

 

When publics fixate, attack, troll, and bully

The term received a great deal of attention as the internet reached widespread adoption, and it is entangled moral panics that caused and used it. As parents and educators in the early 2000s struggled to recognize the longstanding issue of bullying in online discourse, they sometimes conflated bullying with all online interaction. Meanwhile, many of the cases the media labeled cyberbullying are not actually , which is a real phenomenon with specific criteria: aggressive behavior, imbalance of power, repeated over time. (These criteria were laid out by Swedish psychologist Dan Owleus; an excellent analysis of cyberbullying in the context of these is in boyd’s fifth chapter of It’s Complicated.)

Still, some online interactions are toxic with cruelty, whether or not we can scientifically see them as bullying. Another term in popular use to describe online attacks is trolling, perhaps derived from the frequent placement of trolls’ comments below the content, like fairytale trolls lurking below bridges.

John Suler wrote in the early days of the internet about the , exploring the psychology behind behaviors that people engage in online but not in person; he noted while some disinhibition is benign, much of it is toxic. More recent research connects online trolling to narcissism. As we perform before online publics, we enter an arena of unleashed and invisible audiences.

 

Why privacy is such a tangled issue online

is a notion relating to self-determination that is too complicated to be reduced to one simple idea. Privacy can be defined in many ways – and so can invasion of privacy and its potential consequences. This is one of the reasons software companies’ Terms of Service or TOS are never adequate protections for users of their services. How do we demand protection of privacy when it is so multilayered and impossible to define?

Consider these two passages by Daniel Solove in his article, “Why Privacy Matters Even if you have Nothing to Hide.”

Privacy… is too complex a concept to be reduced to a singular essence. It is a plurality of different things that do not share any one element but nevertheless bear a resemblance to one another. For example, privacy can be invaded by the disclosure of your deepest secrets. It might also be invaded if you’re watched by a peeping Tom, even if no secrets are ever revealed.

Privacy, in other words, involves so many things that it is impossible to reduce them all to one simple idea. And we need not do so.

I agree with Solove that privacy is too complicated to be reduced to one simple idea. But often we are still called on to present a simplified definition of our privacy – for example, we have to justify why it is wrong to give companies such rampant uses of our data.

The value of human data

White man in front of a data visualization below the heading "Text Messages!!"
Data mining: Users generate immense value online, but do not usually profit from it.​

We are learning the hard way that we must fight for our privacy online. ​As an early leader in the social media platform market, Facebook set very poor standards for the protection of user privacy because access to personally identifiable user data was immensely profitable for the company. Before Facebook, it was standard for users of online sites to use avatars and craft usernames that didn’t connect to details of their offline lives.

Still, countless online sites permit or encourage users to create online identities apart from their face-to-face identities. Many of today’s younger internet users choose platforms with higher standards for privacy, limiting the publics that their posts reach and the periods of time that posts last. Youth frequently have “finsta” accounts – “fake” Instagrams that they share with nosy family and acquaintances, while only good friends and in-the-know publics have access to their “real” Instagrams. Practices like these force developers to offer users more control over user privacy and the reach of their posts, at the risk of losing users to competitors.

Users shape platforms and platforms shape user behavior. And social and cultural norms shape both user behavior and software platforms.

Core Concepts and Questions

Core Concepts

people paying sustained attention to the same thing at the same time

a construct; an idea of “everyone, everywhere” that people imagine, and refer to when they want to add emphasis to the effects of one-to-many speech

these are sets of people paying sustained attention to the same thing at the same time that intersect and connect online

In the terminology of social network analysis, whenever an individual connects two networked publics (or any two entities, such as two other people), that connector is called a bridge

a phrase used by danah boyd to emphasize the work required to control the privacy of social media posts – the opposite of face to face communication, which is private by default, public by design. (It’s Complicated, p. 61)

the common understanding in crowded spaces that you don’t may politely acknowledge others, but you do not get in their business

a term entangled in moral panics that caused and used it as parents and educators in the early 2000s struggled to recognize the longstanding issue of bullying in online discourse

a real phenomenon with specific criteria: aggressive behavior, imbalance of power, repeated over time. Defined by Dan Olweus

the psychological theory that people behave online in ways they would not in person. For more information see Suler, J. (2004). The Online Disinhibition Effect. Cyberpsychology & behavior : the impact of the Internet, multimedia and virtual reality on behavior and society, 7 3, 321-6

based on a changing set of deciders, including software developers and the evolving practices of publics of users

a notion relating to self-determination that is too complicated to be reduced to one simple idea

Core Questions

A. Questions for qualitative thought

  1. Consider at least one recent post you wrote on the last three social media platforms you used. What publics were you intending to reach with those posts? What language use, visual displays, and other strategies did you use to gain the attention of those publics? If you were facing those publics face to face, how might your self-presentation have differed?
  2. Consider something you have seen online that did not seem to be intended for you in particular to see it. What factors were responsible for its visibility to you? Then consider something you have posted on social media that was seen or commented on by someone you did not have in mind as its audience. How did that situation resolve, and what lessons did you learn from it?
  3. Imagine you are one of the people in charge of a new online world. Your job is to define the communication norms and policies for everyone invited into that world. Which are the key norms you implement? And how do you present them to people so that they will follow them?

B. Review: Which is the best answer?

 

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Humans are Social Media, OER Edition 2021 by Diana Daly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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