Public by Default, Private when Necessary

This post was originally written for the DML Central Blog. If you’re interested in Digital Media and Learning, you definitely want to check this blog out.

With Facebook systematically dismantling its revered privacy infrastructure, I think it’s important to drill down on the issue of privacy as it relates to teens. There’s an assumption that teens don’t care about privacy but this is completely inaccurate. Teens care deeply about privacy, but their conceptualization of what this means may not make sense in a setting where privacy settings are a binary. What teens care about is the ability to control information as it flows and to have the information necessary to adjust to a situation when information flows too far or in unexpected ways. When teens argue that they produce content that is “public by default, private when necessary,” they aren’t arguing that privacy is disappearing. Instead, they are highlighting that both privacy AND publicity have value. Privacy is important in certain situations – to not offend, to share something intimate, or to exclude certain people. Yet, publicity can also be super useful. It’s about being present in social situations, about chance encounters, about obtaining social status.

Once upon a time on Facebook, participants had to be a vetted member of a community to even have an account. Privacy was a deeply held value and many turned to Facebook because of the ways in which it protected them from making public mistakes. This was especially core to youth participation. Parents respected Facebook’s attitudes towards privacy and, in a shocking moment of agreement, teens did too.

Slowly, things have changed. Most recently, Facebook made it possible for users to make Facebook content public (presumably to compete with Twitter). When participants signed in, they were asked whether or not they wanted they wanted to change their privacy settings. Many were confused and just clicked through, not realizing that this made their content more public than it was before. This upset some legal types and Facebook was forced to retreat, making the status quo the default instead of tricking folks into being public.

Recently, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg made comments that amount to “the age of privacy is over” as justification for why the company has decided to get with the times and make things more public. This prompted me to rant about Facebook’s decision.

Social media has enabled new forms of publicity, structures that allow people to connect as widely as they can build an audience. Teens are embracing this to do all sorts of powerful things. But they aren’t doing so to eschew privacy. They are still keeping intimate things close to their hearts or trying to share content with narrow groups of people. It’s just that, in many situations, there is more to be gained by accepting the public default than by going out of one’s way to keep things private. And here’s where we see the shift. It used to take effort to be public. Today, it often takes effort to be private.

While Facebook has justified its decisions by citing shifts in societal expectations, they are doing a disservice to those who value Facebook precisely because of its culture of keeping things more close. It’s not so much that posting things on Facebook was ever private; no teen sees the Wall as a private space. It’s that the default was not persistent, searchable, and scaled to a mass degree. Just because teens choose to share some content widely does not mean that they wish all content could be universally accessible. What they want is a sense of control. And what Facebook is doing is destabilizing the system in a way that complicates control, especially for teens who are most vulnerable of having content go down on their permanent record.

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3 thoughts on “Public by Default, Private when Necessary

  1. Alyssa Gardina

    I think that Facebook has brought to light this increasingly evident fact: everyone should put information online with the assumption that it can, and probably will be, public at some point. I see this becoming an issue primarily with users who are less technologically apt – those who crave privacy, but don’t understand the options before them.

    For teens and adults alike, Facebook’s treatment of their privacy settings as temporary and experimental is unacceptable. Other websites treat changes in TOS or privacy policies as landmark, transparent events. Facebook should do the same, especially considering the large, diverse audience it boasts.

    Thanks for the great post – it provides some great context & food for thought.

  2. Dan Gruen

    I found this interesting from two perspectives.

    One is the sense that in a social space, providing access to personal information, and including people in the group who can see that information, is a way of establishing and cementing relationships. There’s value to your being my friend because I share stuff with you that I don’t reveal to the world at large. Salespeople I have interviewed have spoken of how providing a bit of personal information to long term customers increases a sense of personal connection and loyalty. In a way, this has less to do with the confidentiality of a specific piece of information than with the social power of revealing something not shared with all. The value of actions that bring people into your inner circle.

    This also made me think about conversations I have had with a few large companies recently about their interest in (or at least curiosity about) what social software could do for them within their own organizations. There, they see a major goal that of shifting the dominant culture from one of hoarding to one of sharing . An environment where your perceived value is based more on what you’ve chosen to share and let people discover on their own, than on what people have to come to you for.

  3. Bird

    Seriously, the way that people are self-censoring because they cannot control the intended audience, and are forced to mainstream their message, is really sad. Honestly, I took a walk down Friendster Lane, and was touched to see this shadow of my perhaps younger, also bolder self, along with my noticably less self conscious friends. I realize the trend cannot be reversed, but how to deal with all of this self-monitoring, self-objectification and the feeling of surveillance. The interface was nearly in place back in 2004. I appreciate most the point made in this blog that facebook began as an exclusive network. Likely key to its inception was the guaranteed, and real social capital appeal of its elite culture. That massive appeal has fundamentally “trickled down,” where founders are reaping benefits of attention motivated by the utility of such social information for survival, i.e. how to be attractive, appear impressive relative to the norms of high status individuals, and know what others are up to. Honestly, I write in anonymity because who knows how this information can will be used against me. Let’s just say, I always feel like a bird on a wire, like drunk in a midnight choir…(~ L. Cohen)

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