Many of us who are actively involved with social media want that happy balance where innovative marketing and new ways of engagement thrive on while an individual’s privacy is respected as well. The reality is that today’s online privacy landscape is chaotic. Remember what happened this year with multiple iterations of Facebook privacy policies? We need to do better than that. We need a better understanding of our behavior and we need to define privacy standards which are in sync with the shift to digital world.

Many individuals, academicians and organizations are working to grapple with the issues. Danah Boyd is well known to those who care about privacy on social networks. Her keynote at SXSW this year was one of the popular talks of the whole event. Danah’s research focused on how people manage their presentation of self in relation to social contextual information in online environments.

Danah posted an article on Technology Review (registration needed to access full article) with her thoughts on the gaps and how to fix them. It is an interesting way to address privacy issues. Here are a couple of excerpts from that article.

Each time Facebook’s privacy settings change or a technology makes personal information available to new audiences, people scream foul. Each time, their cries seem to fall on deaf ears.

The reason for this disconnect is that in a computational world, privacy is often implemented through access control. Yet privacy is not simply about controlling access. It’s about understanding a social context, having a sense of how our information is passed around by others, and sharing accordingly. As social media mature, we must rethink how we encode privacy into our systems.

Privacy is not in opposition to speaking in public. We speak privately in public all the time. Sitting in a restaurant, we have intimate conversations knowing that the waitress may overhear. We count on what Erving Goffman called “civil inattention”: people will politely ignore us, and even if they listen they won’t join in, because doing so violates social norms. Of course, if a close friend sits at the neighboring table, everything changes. Whether an environment is public or not is beside the point. It’s the situation that matters.

On the rule-based privacy:

As social media become more embedded in everyday society, the mismatch between the rule-based privacy that software offers and the subtler, intuitive ways that humans understand the concept will increasingly cause cultural collisions and social slips. But people will not abandon social media, nor will privacy disappear. They will simply work harder to carve out a space for privacy as they understand it and to maintain control, whether by using pseudonyms or speaking in code.

Instead of forcing users to do that, why not make our social software support the way we naturally handle privacy? There is much to be said for allowing the sunlight of diversity to shine. But too much sunlight scorches the earth. Let’s create a forest, not a desert.

Danah Boyd is a social-media researcher at Microsoft Research New England, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and a member of the 2010 TR35.

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