Tavernaris Essay 2

Sarah Tavernaris
Essay II
December 14, 2009

Voluntary Self-Disclosure and Our Disregard for Privacy

Given the portability of digital technologies these days, we can access, manage, monitor, and document our lives at any given time. This is a luxury and a convenience, because whenever we want or need to, we have access to information. Yet the “technology that makes social information more easily accessible can rupture people’s sense of public and private by altering the previously understood social norms” (Boyd 2). The more willing we are to compromise the privacy of our identities, the easier it could be to fall victim to the “elusive bad stuff” that exists on the Internet. The little bits of our private information that we offer up with little demand leave digital footprints everywhere we go, and if someone is clever enough to piece it all together, they could compromise our privacy, safety, or reputation.

Privacy, or the right a person has to a private life and the right a person has to control the flow if information about that life, norms have rapidly changed over the past few decades, which have been especially augmented by new telecommunication technology and our online participation. We went from sleepy little American towns with concentrated, integrated social and gossip networks restricted by geography, when we would do anything to maintain a normal appearance, hide scandals, try not to stick out. Now in this digital age of the Global Village, those concentrated networks explode, allowing gossip, harassment, and the invasion of privacy on a huge scale. Imagine being the Star Wars Kid in an Indiana town in 1955, and being able to restart your life in Idaho—now imagine being the Star Wars Kid as he exists today in the collective memory of the Internet, and trying to restart your life anywhere in the world with the Internet.

Personally, since taking this course, I have become aware of the risk to my privacy online if I’m not careful; so I take the steps to ensure that I am protected. I think somewhere the line should be drawn between public and private lives, but the line is difficult to see these days. Social networking sites are popular because they form networks, and communities—and come on, it’s exciting when you reconnect with a childhood friend you haven’t seen in ten years on Facebook and you rekindle your friendship. They are important tools in how we manage our perceptions of our lives and relationships. For all this ideal use though, there are those who don’t know and don’t care where to draw the line, using social networking sites as narcissistic advertisements of their tedious lives. This essay discusses the willingness to self-disclose with abandon while compromising privacy.

Self-Disclosure and Online Privacy

Facebook as often been cited for privacy flaws. If something goes up, it’s easy to find or access—even I f you try to sever ties between that something and yourself. We’ve all heard too many horror stories about job applicants losing employment opportunities because of questionable material on a profile. People seem to be aware of the vulnerability of their privacy when they don’t take measures to secure it. However, various studies discussed in the “Facebook and Online Privacy” (Debatin) article found that a majority of users are aware of their privacy options yet only about half of users utilize them. Leaving Facebook profiles unrestricted to unknown viewers makes users vulnerable targets—even if these risks are low, bad things still happen to good, unsuspecting people. We can never be quite certain who’s paying particularly close attention (I hear that you can determine someone’s social security number, a code based on zip codes, gender, and date of birth [Debatin 3]).

Besides the social information overload present on Facebook and other social network sites (I am of the traditional nature that some things are more appropriate in private forums), a unique kind of privacy invasion occurs, when people decide to disclose too much personal information—thus infringing on my desire to keep their private information private (and out of my life!). For example, Lamebook is a popular blog where participants submit hilariously inappropriate information that has been posted by oblivious users on news feeds and profiles. While the site is indeed hilarious—go on, take a few minutes and indulge yourself—and intended to highlight the absurdity of too much information on Facebook, as well as to moderate social norms about what kinds of behavior are appropriate online. It is unsettling to know that some people are willing to share some embarrassing and potentially reputation-damaging information to a public forum. Not to mention the general decay of spelling, grammar, and mechanics in online speech…yuck.

Besides the regular social network sites like Facebook and MySpace are the more personal and detailed blogs. A related online survey of bloggers in the U.K. by Karen McCullagh yielded information about blog content, presentation, and privacy, and found that nearly 60% of blogs were personal journals, where users archive their individual experience in an interactive, ongoing, self-diagnosed case study.. Blogs are different from typical social network sites, because they are “perceived to be public spaces” (McCullagh 14), yet the idea is a blog is for people to document and share their personal experience (62% cited this as the primary reason for blogging). Revealing information on a blog without carefully concealing privacy could be more dangerous, as people tend to put more thought and emotion into blogs, rather than the dry, superficial facts on Facebook. However, the bloggers surveyed in this study seemed to be more aware of the potential privacy threats and who their audience was.

But…Why?

To the generations before mine (the Media Generation), keeping a detailed personal journal available in a public forum for all the creepers out there to read may seem dangerous, as well as conceited. However, these are popular online activities and innovative ways to manage relationships and identity; these networks foster a sense of community, identity, and sharing that many are desperate for. Often, the gratifications of use will outweigh perceived threats against privacy (Debatin 21). (Ironically, this is a theory that also helps explains why drug-users move from occasional use to prolonged use.)

Despite growing concerns over the negativities of self-disclosure online, users continue to upload personal, identifying information to the web with little regard to privacy. People seem more willing to give up information online, because the Internet provides a false sense of security, as the neutral middleman who steps in to soften social interactions. We feel protected by our “guise” of anonymity and invisible to predators. We are also more likely to give up information online when we see others are doing so as well, because this sends a message that the activity is safe. We tend to trust people at first. Besides, we aren’t predisposed to assume someone is lying to us when they first approach us; we want to take people at face-value (Boyd 5). The Facebook and Online Privacy Study also suggested that online social networks satisfy three needs that media provide: the need for diversion and entertainment, the need for (para-social) relationships, and the need for identity construction (Debatin 7).

In a related study of Korean bloggers, researchers referenced seven core motives for their voluntary self-disclosure on their personal web pages (Lee 6-10):
• Self-presentation: presenting themselves to others by disclosing personal information, managing a congruent identity
• Relationship management: keeping in touch with friends and families, maintaining networks
• Keeping up with trends: everyone is doing it, and so I should too
• Personal information storage: using personal pages as a public scrapbook
• Information sharing: collaboration, free exchange of ideas and information
• Showing off: desire to be considered important or popular by the type of content on personal pages
• Entertainment

The study also found that voluntary self-disclosure could lead to perceptions of improved relationship management, psychological well-being, and habitual self-disclosure behavior (12).

Conclusion

“Optimistic accounts stress new opportunities for self-expression, sociability, community engagement, creativity and new literacies. Critical scholars argue that youthful content creation will counter the traditional dominance of consumers by producers and facilitate an innovative peer culture among young people, both locally and globally. Public policymakers hope that media literacy skills developed through social networking will transfer to support online learning and participation and protect youth from the online risks associated with transgressive representations of the self and abusive contact with others” (Livingstone 2-3).

There certainly seem to be some positive sides to all this colorful self-expression happening in the social sphere of the Internet: it fulfills several needs, such as cultivating identity, forming social circles, finding community, and self-disclosure to form stronger bonds. The need for community and acceptance is something we constantly seek, and the Internet offers instant access to infinite diverse communities.

Despite the positives, the negatives don’t disappear. Some people don’t realize they could be at risk—because they don’t care, they don’t know, or because social norms of expressive self-disclosure exist online. Too Much Information (TMI) is a rather nauseating syndrome of social networking sites, and sometimes it’s healthy to keep the public and private spheres separate. Although this is an interesting topic for new research, I think a future goal of this research is to in turn influence social networking communities to make a serious effort to ensure their users understand their privacy and the risks of sharing personal content.

Sources

Boyd, Danah. "Facebook's Privacy Trainwreck." International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 14.1 (2009): 13-20. EBSCOhost. Online. 1 Dec. 2009.

Debatin, Berhnard, Jeanette P. Lovejoy, Ann-Kathrin Horn, and Brittany N. Hughes. "Facebook and Online Privacy: Attitudes, Behaviors, and Unintended Consequences." Journal of Computer Mediated Communication 15.1 (2009): 83-108. Wiley InterScience. Online. 1 Dec. 2009.

Lee, Doo-Hee, Seunghee Im, and Charles R. Taylor. "Voluntary Self-disclosure of Information on the Internet." Psychology and Marketing 25.7 (2008): 692-710. EBSCOhost. Online. 1 Dec. 2009.

Livingstone, Sonia. "Taking risky opportunity in youth content creation: teenagers' use of social networking for intimacy, privacy and self-expression." New Media & Society 10.3 (2009): 393-411. EBSCOhost. Online. 1 Dec. 2009.

McCullagh, Karen. "Blogging: Self-Presentation and Privacy." Information and Communication Technology Law 17.1 (2008): 3-23. EHSCOhost. Online. 1 Dec. 2009.

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