With the virtually meteoric rise of social media, as routine for hundreds of millions of users globally, it has become an equally impactful concern; namely, how this media safeguards or fails to protect the information of subscribers. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram generate immense usage and involvement, yet increasing numbers of users object to what they perceive as violations of their social media privacy made as the sites share their personal information with merchants and/or render it accessible generally. Linked to this issue is that of reasonable expectation of privacy, in that it is questionable how media subscribers may so dispute information sharing and access when in fact they surrender protections, to an extent, through their participation. In plain terms, social media is, its enormous popularity notwithstanding, still something of a novelty, and it is inevitable that these forums, in which so much personal information is presented and exchanged online, should prompt pressing discussion of social media privacy issues. As the following will explore, the subject as a whole is complex, and research is inherently limited by how recent the activity is on this scale. Nonetheless, and in the final analysis, it will be seen that subscriber objections are in fact questionable, as it must be understood that any voluntary providing of information to a social site online must equate to something of a waiving of privacy rights.
As noted, research on social media and privacy is relatively new, even as intense focus is given to the subject in general terms. This has in fact led to a focus on privacy issues, seemingly the most paramount concern regarding social media, and Susan Barnes’s “A Privacy Paradox: Social Networking in the United States” amply addresses this. It must be observed that the title of the article is misleading; Barnes’s attention is on teenage and younger users. The work in social media and privacy is nonetheless comprehensive and the author’s trajectory of thinking is based on solid research. Barnes employs a wide variety of studies to affirm that, in a very real sense, privacy has taken on a different meaning for younger users, simply because they grew up with social media and Internet access.
This inevitably creates a blurring of the lines between the virtual and real: “Adults tend to use the Web as a supplement to real–world activities while teenagers tend to ignore the difference between life online and off–line” (Barnes, 2006). This emphasis on youth aside, however, Barnes also offers data regarding documented evidence of how various agencies collect personal information from basic Internet usage The government, for instance, scans driver license databases to pursue “deadbeat dads” behind in child support, as shopping online generates consumer buying patterns transmitted to other merchants (Barnes). The point is clear; social media aside, involvement with the Internet in any manner easily translates to a surrendering of information, and subsequently privacy.
Barnes goes on to examine how privacy in social media itself is being addressed. There is first extensive documentation as to how younger users too casually provide personal information to the sites, as well as fail to use discretion in posts. This, as the author notes, has generated school response, and increasing numbers of lawsuits are filed based upon a school’s disciplinary action taken upon a student’s social media activity when that school perceives it as inappropriate. Legal address, not unexpectedly, varies; as cases come before the courts regarding a school’s right to use social media content to discipline students, the standard applied relies on the court’s interpretation of the circumstances. In one instance, three different courts issued three different rulings regarding a school’s punishing a student for an inflammatory MySpace posting (Stewart, 2013, p. 149). Then, this element of itself adds another dimension to privacy concerns, in that students tend to view themselves as unjustly monitored by school authorities, which expands the shifts in the concept of privacy itself. Put another way, the students are insisting upon a right to express themselves howsoever they wish, yet anticipate – and seemingly unrealistically – “privacy” in terms of selective audience.
The article does record the efforts being addressed at one consequence of information access; namely, that of predators using social media and chats to obtain addresses and contact information for young people, and Barnes’s work is appropriately timed in this regard. It was in the 1990s and early 2000s that there arose a strong demand in the public that children be protected from potential sexual abuse so generated (Paludi, Denmark, 2010, p. 58). The urgency of privacy issues with social media notwithstanding, Barnes observes and supports that, as of 2006, no viable solutions to the privacy concerns arising then were in place. Social awareness was in fact considered the most expedient measure, in terms of young people being instructed as to discretion in revealing information. There was and is a need, according to the author, for active citizenship to confront the issue through analysis and response.
Perhaps most interestingly, the article accurately forecasts the enormity of the privacy issue, noting the then-emerging practice of merchants to cull consumer data from social media outlets. Barnes offers no real strategies, but the article is well-researched and balanced, in that she does not absolves users, teen and older, from the responsibility of participation. There is recognition of the nature of privacy as largely subjective: “Choosing to reveal information and then having it used for a different purpose by third parties is a privacy issue” (Barnes), but there is nonetheless a pervasive and rational acknowledgment of the social media users enabling of violations.
Mary Madden’s 2012 article, “Privacy Management on Social Media Sites,” is particularly interesting by virtue of how it reinforces Barnes’s earlier work. A trajectory is then in place in which citizenship has in fact evolved, at least to an extent, in addressing social media privacy. The article contains a large amount of evidence from studies, and there is clearly a new approach taken by the public. If in the past privacy was triggering concerns, a combination of media reporting of potential violations of privacy and increased skill levels in navigating the sites has produced change: “A majority of social network site users – 58% – restrict access to their profiles and women are significantly more likely to choose private settings” (Madden, 2012, p. 2).
The element of women altering their online behaviors or making efforts to secure their information is telling, and reflective of how knowledge has gone to initiating change. It is established through research that, awareness of the dangers of online interactions aside, girls and women remain more vulnerable to unwelcome contact than men (Ross, 2010, p. 158). It is reasonable to assume that this vulnerability is simply an “extension” of the greater vulnerability of women in literal settings, in that the danger her arises from privacy invasions which, depending on the intent of the perpetrator, may take physical form. This new response from women is reflected throughout the article and validated by research, as in: “Women who maintain social media profiles are significantly more likely than men to keep their profiles private” (Madden, p. 5). In the arena of social media privacy debate, gender is very much a critical component, and Madden effectively presents the relevance of it.
Within the body of research presented, however, is an academic analysis of great interest. The author takes no stance, and instead present contrasting sides of the privacy question which articulate each completely. To begin with, she notes – astutely – how the debate itself centers around a term whose meaning is today unclear. “Privacy” has become extraordinarily subjective, just as it is more laden with multiple meanings than ever before. No debate in fact may be engaged without a specific understanding of how privacy is perceived within the context of the debate.
Then, Madden eloquently offers the “privacy-is-dead” position held by many, in which it is felt that communication technology has essentially negated personal privacy, at least in terms of information. Those who support this view hold that it is unconscionable for users to heap personal content within a website designed to attract as many users as possible, and then object to violations of privacy. These processes, it is also believed, likely eviscerate the definition of privacy, or certainly weaken it as a right to be protected: “Regular use of social media without any major negative experiences may lessen their concerns about sharing information” (Madden, p. 4). Other research tends to support this diminishing identity of privacy, or altered meaning. Studies reveal that there is a remarkably small difference between information disclosures between those with extreme privacy concerns and those relatively unconcerned (Ellison et al, 2011, p. 22). This is in fact a remarkably important point, indicating a trend toward disregard of privacy concerns apart from asserted convictions as to their urgency.
As to that urgency, Madden presents the arguments that social media users are manipulated and do not actually wish to surrender their privacy, a view at least partially supported by the article’s research pointing to more active control exercised by users. Also supporting the idea that many users are concerned with privacy is the reality that restricting access to friends and family only is applied evenly across all age ranges, although younger subscribers are more adept in online activity.
It is also interesting, and pertinent to actual motivations and concerns, that the research indicates a conflict regarding exercising controls; that is, very few subscribers – only two percent – report experiencing great difficulty in controlling their privacy settings. Most claim only moderate difficulty, yet less than half of Facebook users, for example, make the efforts to regulate their privacy controls (Madden, p. 8). This reality coexists with the privacy concerns, so it must again be wondered, then, how drastically users feel their privacy is jeopardized, and/or how differently they interpret privacy itself.
Based on Madden’s findings, in fact, it seems likely that concerns are largely based on perceptions of the sites “selling” user information to merchants, just as it is established that large companies such as Google and Starbucks negotiate contracts with Facebook and Twitter allowing them to retrieve user preferences (Stewart, 2013, p. 104). Nonetheless, and going to the “privacy-is-dead” argument presented by Madden, the degree of actual concern is questionable when a significant number of users are careless regarding controls, or disregard them entirely. Madden’s article asserts no viewpoint; rather, it merely reports the latest findings and discusses conflicting perceptions regarding social media privacy.
It reveals, however, a distinct trajectory, and one going to the earlier work of Barnes, in that increased user involvement in privacy controls occurs, but it is not as overt an effort as may be expected, given the weight of public concern in general. It would in fact be reasonable to anticipate that such research would reveal a consistent evidence of users restricting their social media presences as much as possible, yet this is not the case. This in turn suggests that privacy is, to reiterate, weakened or eviscerated as a concept.
There is as well here the distinct possibility, not examined by Madden or Barnes, that users refrain from full control of their settings simply because they are unwilling to lessen potential contact and interaction with others. Academic knowledge is relevant here, in that it is necessary to determine – and apply – subscriber intent, and this may be done through noting just how expansively a site like Facebook allows for personal information and how eager users are to supply it. Facebook software, in a word, encourages elaborate self-disclosure, and most users provide the full range of information field data, from high schools attended to favorite films (Lomborg, 2013, p. 184).
Research then reveals that the primary motivation for the disclosure is not to share the information with known friends and family, but to generate new contacts and simultaneously enhance individual visibility online. In one study, over two-thirds of subscribers identified as their motives the desire to meet new people, believed to be easier through the online venue than in “real life” (Brandtzæg, Heim, 2009, p., 147). Certainly, users enjoy interacting with people known to them, but this factor of the ambition to gain new friends offers an important perspective on the privacy issue. That is to say, users likely are conflicted between their seeking to protect their information and their apprehension that a less than comprehensive profile will impair their new social opportunities. Privacy is then not so much a concern, but a commodity whose value must be carefully assessed. The last article to be considered, “Understanding Generation Y and Their Use of Social Media: a Review and Research Agenda,” is a strictly analytical focus on how the age group of the title, familiar with Internet technology from childhood on, employs and is affected by social media. The authors also put the subject in a global perspective, an approach they claim not yet made in previous research on the group.
The component is important; as noted here, people born between 1981 and 1999 (Generation Y) use the media differently based upon cultural backgrounds and, in a world increasingly globalized, this is crucial in assessing how this generation’s social media activity indicates likely trends for the future. After carefully defining the elements of the age group, the authors summarize its essential character, and of a largely international type: “They ‘want it all’ and ‘want it now,’ particularly in relation to work pay and benefits, career advancement, work/life balance, interesting work and being able to make a contribution to society via their work” (Bolton et al, 2013, p. 9). That the group shares characteristics regarding social media usage in international terms is validated by information revealing a surprising consistency of access. South Korea mirrors the United States in advanced technology and an economy enabling usage, and even in less developed nations young people negotiate access through shared cell phone plans, as in South. Africa (Bolton et al, p. 13).
With regard to how this generation addresses privacy or is affected by it, the authors uncover interesting realities not necessarily expected. That is, as technologically expert the group is, it tends to engage in more disclosure than other age groups. Put another way, it is less intent on preserving privacy despite its being better enabled to regulate controls. This is presented as due to several factors, one of which is entitlement; perceiving themselves as due recognition, the generation members are rarely reluctant to offer any sort of information about themselves. There are distinct advantages here. Internationally, such disclosure generates greater interaction regarding educational, employment, and housing opportunities, just as it tends to elevate the users’ social capital. At the same time, this seeming abandonment of privacy has negative consequences. Intimate relationships, it has been observed, suffer because the user’s requiring of social approval sometimes encourages indiscretion in revelations of personal matters. Then, such open disclosure creates risk in employment terms, when firms may easily investigate applicant character through the social media presence (Bolton et al, p. 19). It appears as well that the generation is aware of this negative potential but is largely unconcerned with it.
What is ultimately seen in this study is a striking duality, in that the generation most adept at Internet interactions – or certainly with the most experience of them – is also the most “reckless” in regard to securing their own privacy. The work is important in that so young a generation’s behaviors are, as noted, indicators of larger social trends to come, and: “Gen Y’s use of social media may be leading to changes in social norms and behavior at the societal level in domains such as civic and political engagement, privacy and public safety” (Bolton et al, p. 23). This then equates to significance regarding social media privacy, for it is arguable, based on the article’s rationale and research, that there exists an increasing willingness to disregard privacy security. If, in plain terms, the youngest adults are consistently demonstrating a lack of concern for access, it is logical to assume that succeeding generations will follow suit. Moreover, it seems that this is very likely, if not inevitably, related to the generation’s immersion in Internet use from the youngest ages; that is, it has grown up perceiving social media as an extension of its literalbeing, and in individual terms.
Further Issues, Citizenship, and Moral Factors
It will be interesting to observe how, domestically and internationally, the issue of privacy in social media evolves in the coming years. As noted, and despite the discussed, apparent willingness of subscribers to set out their personal information in realms known as insecure, there is a significant decrying of social media sites as invasive.
There has been a consistent demand that the technology itself provide the answers; Facebook and Twitter, in the estimations of many, are fully obligated to protect personal information, and this conviction may be seen as active citizenship. It is expressed passively when members remove their presences from the sites, and actively when they both exercise the available privacy controls and insist upon more. Unfortunately, however, such citizenship, even going to extremes of organizational movements, can only address the issue to a limited extent. Technical safeguards are minimally helpful at best simply because the sensitivity of personal information is highly subject to gradation, and because the nature of data online is, in a word, tenacious. From the beginnings of the Information Age, the emphasis was on securing information, with the result that – as many ordinary users know too well – it is virtually impossible to erase or destroy information once entered online (Nissenbaum, 2009, p. 36). This translates to potentials for access no system may properly address.
With securing privacy as the concern, then, there remains the avenue most often cited as perhaps the only viable solution: citizenship in the form of self-regulation. It is generally acknowledged that waiting for legislature to properly address the issue is an exercise in futility; the law is already wholly inadequate in assessing the complex rights and potential degrees of violation within this scenario (Van Dijk, 2012, p. 167). This being the case, individual self-regulation relies on the noted efforts of the user to employ whatever protections the media offers. Collectively, this takes the form of organizational policies presented and enforced by the sites; in plain terms, the site protects the user’s privacy by declaring that it will do so, which in turn relies upon codes of conduct. There are difficulties here, however. Firstly, such codes lose meaning if legislation is not in place to enforce them. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the codes and commitments are without value if the user does not take the time to fully comprehend the policies and establish the desired protocols of privacy (Van Dijk, p.167). It then appears that, somewhat ironically, the protection of privacy in any real sense depends upon the desires and efforts of the social media user.
The subject then comes full circle, so to speak, even as other ethical issues complicate the privacy issue. As has been the reality for some time, online blogs such as Perez Hilton and TZM offer as much in the way of “revelatory” images and information as they can, and these ambitions include politics. They also involve social media. In 2012 Big Government, a right wing blog, ran pictures of Congressman Anthony Weiner in his underwear, pictures that Weiner had sent to a Twitter follower (Stanyer, 2013, p. 146). Extremely private “information,” it may be said, is then literally flying from site to site, and with enormous repercussions for public figures involved.
Such episodes, however, greatly underscore the imperative blatantly beneath the concern for social media privacy; namely, that it is only as present as those using the media enable it to be. There is no escaping that, the “privacy-is-dead” viewpoint aside, a moral issue is at the heart of the subject, and one apart from the privacy rights of the users as abused. Social media subscribers must accept the reality that the nature of the Internet is intrusive, and that some waiving of privacy is inevitable when they choose to submit information, pictures, opinions, and videos. In plain terms, it is inexpressibly naïve for anyone remotely familiar with online activity to believe that these things will be safeguarded completely from access not granted by the owner.
Regarding the earlier evidence that Generation Y is far more inclined to disregard privacy, it is arguable that the assessment is flawed; any young cohort tends to take more risks than older counterparts, just as that same cohort becomes less inclined to risk-taking as it ages (Michael, Michael, 2014, p. 24). At the same time, there is the crucial difference here that the usage is changing the concept of privacy in these young people, so it is probable that the effect will endure. Ultimately, the choice belongs to the users because only in that choice lies real privacy protection.
Just as social media becomes a fixture in people’s lives, so too is there a rising outcry against perceived violations of privacy. The literature reveals efforts to address this either inadequate or, as in earlier years, focused only on literal dangers. Much has been written about the issue, reinforcing that public demand that its privacy is secured as it interacts with the sites. However, as it is highly unlikely that legislation or technology will provide this, and as self-regulation, already an instrument to be employed, is only moderately used, there remains an inescapable – and ethical – reality. Privacy may or may not be “dead” in the social media age, but what matters is that its existence as such absolutely demands the public acknowledgment that it is wholly within the public’s control. Ultimately, social media users demanding privacy protection is questionable at best, as it must be understood that any voluntary providing of information to a social site online must translate to something of a waiving of privacy rights.
- Barnes, S. B. (2006). A Privacy Paradox: Social Networking in the United States. First Monday, 11(9). Retrieved 2 June 2014 from http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/1394/1312%2523
- Bolton, R. N., Parasuraman, A., Hoefnagels, A., Migchels, N., Kabadayi, S., Gruber, T., … & Solnet, D. (2013). Understanding Generation Y and Their Use of Social Media: a Review and Research Agenda. Journal of Service Management,24(3), 245-267. Retrieved 2 June 2014 from http://www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?articleid=17089752&show=abstract
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- Nissenbaum, H. (2009). Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
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- Ross, K. (2010). Gendered Media: Women, Men, and Identity Politics. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Stanyer, J. (2013). Intimate Politics: Publicity, Privacy and the Personal Lives of Politicians in Media Saturated Democracies. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.
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