Privacy in the Virtual Front Region


I recently listened to a talk by Miriam Metzger, Assoc. Prof. of Communication at UCSB on the topic of privacy and Facebook. (Here is a news report of that talk: Here too is a video of the talk:

Prof. Metzger’s starting point was the notion that Facebook users say they want privacy but act in ways that reveal their intimate lives. This “privacy paradox,” she noted, was in part due to our outdated understanding of that privacy is in the digital era. For these users and in this digital environment privacy must have other referents. Here I would submit that the “privacy paradox” on Facebook may actually be explainable without abandoning other notions of privacy.

The core activities on Facebook are “friending” (the user acquires friends whose information becomes visible and who can in return view the user’s information), microblogging one’s status, and photo sharing (Facebook is the largest photo sharing site on the planet with more than 6 billion photos). Facebook is a social network the primary purpose of which is publicity. Users join Facebook to show themselves. This is probably why the service is not called “Hide-Your-Facebook.” There are scores of additional services and third-party applications that add to a growing suite of features. Almost all of these services and applications promote the sharing of information.

Asking users about privacy on Facebook is a bit like asking diners at a banquet about fasting (or members of a nudist colony about fashion, etc.). Presumably, some of them will mention their desire to fast, but the fact that they are eating while they answer questions about fasting is not necessarily a paradox. Similarly, asking Facebook users as a cohort about privacy will reveal a wide range of practices better described as self-publicity, and these practices will be simultaneous with answers that reflect a felt need for privacy.  As we shall see, this is less a paradox and more a balancing act.

Many of the privacy problems associated with Facebook involve the rights that the application owners claim for the users’ information; and the fact that Facebook’s internal roles (and the access rules they enable) are inadequate to match the roles of everyday social life. The marketing of user-contributed information as a part of Facebook’s business plan has created waves of ill-will between the company and its software users. Facebook has finally opened up its core user agreements for user-community input. This still does not solve the inadequacies of Facebook’s software in the area of information hiding. Hiding is the other side of sharing. Facebook’s features are so geared to promote sharing that they fail to support hiding.

Students may regularly hide information from their parents and teachers even when they reveal the same information to their friends. Workers hide information from bosses. Bosses hid information from workers. Parishioners hide information from their priests. In the non-digital world people have multiple ways to hide what they do not want someone to know.
But what happens when a parent or teacher becomes a friend (or a friend of a friend) on Facebook? What happens when your boss wants to be your friend? The founding data model for Facebook cannot handle this type of mundane social complexity. So the real issue in Facebook is not a privacy paradox, but a lack of control over the hiding of information. How do you share intimate, fun, often embarrassing moments with your best friends (who seem more than willing to share theirs with you), while controlling what information casual- and non-friends can see?

Facebook is the Geek God’s gift to sociologists. Not only is almost half of the information on Facebook–the entire profiles of nearly 70 million people–open to anyone who can data-mine this, but users are consciously making choices that can be surveyed. Facebook is a conscious, decision-driven social activity. The work of scientists such as Dr. Metzger will help to guide our understanding of how users negotiate their identities within the digisphere.

Another avenue of possible research here would explore “regionality.” This is a notion developed fifty years ago by sociologist Erving Goffman. Goffman’s front regions are spaces where people pay attention to their self presentation, while back regions (bedrooms, bathrooms, locker rooms, back stages, etc.) are places where the constraints on self presentation are relaxed. Up to today, physical regions, places, and behaviors translate poorly into digital social networking services. In some ways, the act of “friending” someone may signal access to one’s personal back region. Certainly, from the photos aggregated at many (most?) profiles, back region behavior is in evidence (think duck tape and bottles of tequila). In non-digital activities, privacy is still managed through control of physical back regions. People still lock their doors.

It is certainly interesting to see how Facebook activities intrude on these private back spaces. The problem of privacy extends to friends with cell-phone cameras in bars and bathrooms. Facebook becomes a destination for publicizing these violations of physical privacy. For many, Facebook has become an archive of their backstage follies managed mostly beyond their control. I’ve been working with a large group of later-career scientists and technicians The great majority of them (perhaps 80%) consider Facebook an unwelcome opportunity. They would rather keep their privacy by the simple act of avoiding Facebook.

The dilemma for Facebook users is that the enjoyment they have to view intimate photos of their friends is measured against the chagrin of their being tagged in embarrassing situations. The act of removing a tag from a friend’s picture signals a remoteness, a lack to trust. Friends pay attention. The answer to the “privacy paradox” on Facebook is likely to arrive when the Facebook  owners or their successors turn the lens around and do their own sociology. Someone is going to figure out a data model that is flexible enough to allow people to have better control over just who they will allow into their digital back-regions and the ability (and social backing) to eliminate evidence collected without permission from physical back regions.

Photo Credit: The Doctr on Flickr used with CC license

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