Privacy and Facebook – An Essay

Question;

This year the founder of FaceBook, Mark Zuckerberg, claimed that privacy is no longer a “social norm”. Daniel Solove argues that the increasing availability of personal information on the internet undermines our ability to control our own reputation.

Consider how the internet has changed the nature of privacy in recent years.

Is the erosion of privacy simply a reflection of changing social values, which we should learn to accept and live with, or is this a dangerous social trend which should be challenged?

Privacy has become a commodity which has been willingly given up through social networking sites (hereafter SNS) on the internet. This sacrifice of privacy is a result of changing social values which allow willing participation in the construction and deconstruction of reputations through a democratized platform (such as FaceBook) which is now the socially acceptable norm. The internet’s ability to improve social communications proves that, rather than a sacrifice this can be seen as a trade, where the user must choose either privacy or their social life. The intimacy people have with their privacy is closely linked with control over how their reputation, the internet takes away this control which can be viewed as invasive (Solove, D 2007. ‘How the free flow of information liberates and constrains us’), and yet, even with this loss of control people continue to skim through user agreements (Cohen, N. 2008. ‘Gendering FaceBook: Privacy and Commodification,’) and surrender their privacy without considering the long term effects of these actions.

This essay will look primarily at the example of FaceBook (a popular and expanding SNS) and relate it to the concept of control, and the amount an individual has over his/her privacy, how this links in with their reputation as well as how involvement in the digital world can affect their ability to function in the real world.

Rachels’ (1997. ‘Why privacy is important’) opinion on privacy is based around the issue of control: control of one’s self representation (reputation) and control over the context in which one is viewed. Without the ability to control our own image we cannot control how others perceive us, which then affects the control we have over our social life.

An analogy suggested by Rachels (1997) and Solove (2007) is that everyone has a set of masks, which are interchangeable depending on the social situation, these masks can be seen as symbolic representation’s of the many different social filters which aid individuals with socialization. However the addition of a technological approach to socialization removes the ability to filter out personal information and to an extent takes away the viewers ability to empathize with the individual (Holtzman, D 2006. ‘Collateral damage: the harm to society.’) In the real world a person’s collection of masks or personas can be complex and varied, yet in the digital world the entire community will see only one mask and so, as this filter is removed, intricacies are lost and every action online becomes concerned with either aiding in the construction of one’s own reputation, the deconstruction of another individual’s reputation or viewing the details of other people online. (Rachels, J 1997.)

While Solove (2007) focuses on the deconstruction of an individual’s reputation, there are many examples where, through SNS such as FaceBook, people fabricate the truth so as to aid in the construction of their reputation (Boyd, Dana and Ellison, Nicole. 2008. ‘Social Networking Sites: Definition, History and Scholarship,’). It is important to note, that whatever control the individual believes this fabrication of events gives them, is in itself a lie, as the individual still has no control over the context in which they are viewed and therefore have no control over their reputation in the digital world (Murthy, D. 2008. ‘Digital Ethnography: An Examination of the Use of New Technologies for Social Research,’)

The result of this is that privacy becomes much harder to control (in the digital world) as it is no longer tangible, once something becomes digital it is subject to change (Murthy, D. 2008.), even without the author’s permission (Solove, D 2007.), this lack of control over our own social environment can lead to panic and fear due to the risk of being followed online and eventually in real life (Murthy.2008.) refers to this as ‘cyber stalking’ whereas Boyd (2008) refers to it as ‘FaceBook stalking’.) This raises questions about how ethical the internet is. The social values have therefore changed; from a society that once desired a range of social filters where everyone was allowed their secrets (Wauschauer, Mark and Grimes, Douglas. 2007. ‘Audience, Authorship and Artefact: The Emergent Semiotics of Web 2.0,’) to one where there is but one social filter, the trade off of the later being the ease in which an individual can access the information of others. I agree strongly with Solove’s (2007) notion that humans are perpetually curious about the reputation of others and through a competitive streak will constantly seek out any advantage we can get within our social network by finding the faults and secrets of others.

This can constantly lead an individual to attempt to control of the context in which they are viewed and (in the case of the more vindictive/competitive) how others are viewed. By attempting to control the reputation of others an individual can attempt to control their own. Examples of this can be found in the undermining comments, snide remarks and unauthorized photos (usually photos taken without an individual’s knowledge which portray them in a negative light) on SNS. It is the norm that these things are done in a ‘spur of the moment’ (Cohen. 2008.) with little thought given to the longevity that data has on the internet.

A common misconception that new users of SNS have is that what they have to type will fade with time (Boyd.2008.) This is due to the false sense of anonymity which the internet provides, meaning that socially inappropriate actions can be linked to a SNS account and impact the individual in real life quite harshly. (Wauschauer. 2007.)

As soon as something becomes digital the owner/author loses control over it (Cohen. 2008.) and this is never more apparent with the latest FaceBook debacle in which the founder (Mark Zuckerberg) stated that privacy is no longer a “social norm.” Which has been continually justified through the (100 million) growth within the FaceBook community since 2009, despite the announcement of privacy fears, the user base has continued to grow.

Further proof to Zuckerberg’s statement can be found within the history of SNS.  From its humble beginnings as a way of proving the six degrees of separation (Boyd. 2008.) to a way of correlating real life events,  SNS have greatly impacted and changed how we, as a society, interact with each other. Providing a constant flow of information from the individuals personal computer and into the ever expanding blogosphere.

Due to this constant flow of information on the internet and lack of control, photographs, quotes, names and whole identities are lost, and while many of the younger generations show a lack of concern over this (Cohen. 2008.) it can destroy a young adults hopes for a job, career or relationship. In many cases this is not due to the younger generations choosing to give up their privacy, but rather not realizing that they had a right to privacy to begin with (Cohen.2008.), and in the case of older generations, it is usually through ignorance or thoughts of anonymity that socially unacceptable behavior occurs (Cohen.2008.). An example of this is a common internet meme known as ‘FaceBook Fired’, where an individual, reveals that they have a dislike for their current occupation or are bored. Once the employer is informed of this status update or wall post the individual is then subsequently fired, even when no mention of the workplace is made and no names are mentioned.

This provides an example of a link between the digital world and the real world, where both are affected by each other in ways which could not be anticipated in the past, another example which proves the use of SNS and why people rely so heavily on them is seen in the ability to host an event or invite a desired group of friends out for a social gathering. This can be done to reach people who are sick, interstate, shut indoors due to work commitments and so on. The potential behind SNS is close to unlimited (the ability to digitize, maintain, and create social networks ensures this potential). While these extra abilities to socialize have become the social norm, the concept of having one’s reputation destroyed instills a sense of caution in most (Rachels.1997.) the concept of any/every action being under scrutiny by a larger audience than immediately visible causes people to take care in the way they behave socially so as to avoid embarrassment among the online community (Solove. 2007.). Using the common social gathering (revolving around alcohol use (as an example), if a picture is taken with an individual in the background (during the theorized social event), without their consent and is then uploaded to FaceBook they may then be ‘tagged’ in this photo, this allows everyone on the individuals friends list to see them acting inappropriately, but did not involve the individual giving consent for the photo. Such is the state of privacy, that its erosion not only affects the digital world, but also the real world, so that in any case where the digital and real worlds collide they become mercilessly exploited by the online community; popular examples of this include, drunk pictures, ‘derp’ photos and photo bombers (appendix 1) ; all of which aim at effecting the way in which an individual is seen after viewing the photo, being in one of these photos strips an individual of their reputation.

And yet as much as it destroys peoples reputations to be in such images there are sites such as (not only FaceBook) the daily meme (appendix 1), where an individual can post a picture of themselves or a passed out friend which then gets virally reproduced to a number of sister sites within minutes based on how much the main focus is humiliated.

This not only shows a disregard for people’s privacy, but also a disregard for their reputation, as sites such as those mentioned destroy reputations in seconds .  This may seem invasive, but it is widely practiced, and can be seen as a true reflection of how social values have changed from undisclosed to invasive, not through force, but through willing participation so as individuals may continually communicate through a democratized platform (such as FaceBook) in order to construct a reputation or deconstruct another’s through socially acceptable means.

To conclude, this paper has explained that an increasing number of people have either come to accept that their privacy is forfeit when they use the internet (particularly when using SNS) or in the case of younger generations, have unwittingly given up their privacy while adhering to the norms of present social communications; and that this is a true reflection of the norms of social communication in a society which is becoming ever more technologically based.

Appendix 1;

Derp photos:  “Derp is an expression used online to signify stupidity, much like the earlier forms of “duh” and “dur.” One of the first recorded instances of the term “derp” comes from a short-lived South Park character, Mr. Derp.” (Rocketboom. 2010. ‘Derp, part of a series on internet slang.’)

Photo bombers: “An otherwise normal photo that has been ruined or spoiled by someone who was not supposed to be in the photograph.” (Pet Holdings, Inc. 2010. ‘photojackers of the world unite.’)

Drunk pictures; A photograph taken with the intent of embarrassing the people within it the next morning by showing their unacceptable behavior to them when they have become sober, usually posted and tagged on FaceBook due to ease of uploading (Horse Head Huffer Productions. 2009. ‘ Passed out photos and drunk shaming.’)

The daily meme; A website dedicated to spreading videos and images through sister sites until they become viral. (Gnoth, C. 2010 ‘The Daily Meme; a meme a day keeps the boredom away.’)

Works Cited;

Boyd, Dana and Ellison, Nicole. 2008. ‘Social Networking Sites: Definition, History and Scholarship,’ Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, vol 13, pp.210-230

Cohen, Nicole. 2008. ‘Gendering FaceBook: Privacy and Commodification,’ Journal of Feminist Media Studies, vol 8 issue 2, pp.210-214

Gnoth, C. 2010 ‘The Daily Meme; a meme a day keeps the boredom away.’ Accessed 7 September 2010, < http://thedailymeme.com/>

Holtzman, D 2006. ‘Collateral damage: the harm to society’, ch. 2 in Privacy Lost, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, pp. 41 – 56.

Horse Head Huffer Productions. 2009. ‘ Passed out photos and drunk shaming.’ Accessed 7 September 2010, < http://passedoutphotos.com/>

Pet Holdings, Inc. 2010. ‘photojackers of the world unite.’ Accessed 7 September 2010, <http://thisisphotobomb.com/>

Murthy, Dhiraj. 2008. ‘Digital Ethnography: An Examination of the Use of New Technologies for Social Research,’ Sociology, vol 42, no 5, pp.837-855

Rachels, J 1997. ‘Why privacy is important’ in Ermann, M. D., Williams, M. B. and Shauf, M. S. Computers, Ethics and Society, Oxford University Press, NY: pp. 69 – 76.

Rocketboom. 2010. ‘Derp, part of a series on internet slang.’ Accessed 7 September 2010, <http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/derp>

Solove, D 2007. ‘How the free flow of information liberates and constrains us’, ch. 2 in The Future of Reputation: Gossip rumour and privacy on the internet, Yale University Press, New Haven, pp. 17 – 50.

Wauschauer, Mark and Grimes, Douglas. 2007. ‘Audience, Authorship and Artefact: The Emergent Semiotics of Web 2.0,’ Annual Review Applied to Linguistics, vol 27, pp.1-23

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