The New “Publicness,” the New (Networked) Privacy, and Youth Expression


6.24.11 | Brian Stelter’s recent analysis in The New York Times of the lack of privacy in our new, networked world—“Upending Anonymity, These Days the Web Unmasks Everyone”—is a measured account of the power of social networking and other online connections in our lives. It uses several recent examples of how apparently anonymous people—from a haughty New York commuter and rioters (and a kissing couple) caught on camera during the recent riots in Vancouver to the women who were tweeting with Anthony Weiner—were all quickly identified by the efforts of ordinary, if enterprising, web users who tracked their digital footprints:

This erosion of anonymity is a product of pervasive social media services, cheap cellphone cameras, free photo and video Web hosts, and perhaps most important of all, a change in people’s views about what ought to be public and what ought to be private. Experts say that Web sites like Facebook, which require real identities and encourage the sharing of photographs and videos, have hastened this change.

“Humans want nothing more than to connect, and the companies that are connecting us electronically want to know who’s saying what, where,” said Susan Crawford, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. “As a result, we’re more known than ever before.”

Although Steltler doesn’t address it directly in his piece, the implications for youth and learning in this new age of “publicness” is profound. The Learning Network (the online educational extension of the Times) is, in fact, asking students to offer their opinions about the issues raised in the article:

Do you ever worry about the possibility of being publicly identified for something that you would prefer to remain private? Would you ever use tech tools and social media to “out” someone you know to the world? What are your views on privacy with respect to the Internet? Do you find it worrisome? Liberating? Something else?

danah boyd gave a talk at the Personal Democracy Forum earlier this month in which she suggests that teenagers are growing up with a radically different and much more complex notion of privacy than previous generations. boyd wants to dispute the notion that teenagers are simply exhibitionists and don’t care about their privacy or the shaping of their own identities—and she also wants to make sure that we don’t succumb to knee-jerk reactions to the new “publicness” of our lives.

She uses the growth of Facebook as an example:

In the last couple of years, as parents flocked to Facebook, teens stopped being able to claim these sites as their space. No amount of telling their parents to KEEP OUT worked. So they had to find a different way to achieve privacy in these spaces. Some manipulated privacy settings to try to keep people out, but many more started looking for social solutions. One of the first things that teens started doing en masse mirrored a practice that any parent would recognize: they started encoding their meaning. Rather than trying to restrict access to content, they started to restrict access to meaning. Any parent will tell you that kids have an amazing ability to talk behind their backs right in front of them. Siblings develop coded signals to try to hide information from parents. And tweens gossip in the backseat of parents’ cars, using referents to refer to things that the parents know nothing about. The same thing happens online. Teens use pronouns to refer to people and events that only those “in the know” know the reference. Others use song lyrics to fly below the radar, engaging in an act of social steganography. None of this is new, but it takes on a new scale when it takes place in Facebook.

The fact that teens are actively engaging in strategies to achieve privacy highlights how privacy is by no means dead. Kids do care about privacy, even if they struggle to achieve it. But it also shows how the desire to achieve privacy is not contradictory with the desire to participate in Facebook. But there’s another important aspect to teens’ efforts to achieve privacy: they recognize and understand the networked nature of it.

When teens try to achieve privacy online, they don’t start by thinking about how they can lock down content. They start by thinking about how they can make certain that those in their peer group understand the boundaries.

These observations lead boyd to a concept of “networked privacy”—and though she is still forming her ideas, it appears to present a type of ideological compromise to the either/or conversation surrounding the rights of privacy in the digital age. Instead of simply talking about protecting privacy as individuals, she believes we need to adapting the concept of privacy to collectives, groups that share friendship or other links.

Research from the PEW Internet and American Life Project on “Social Networking Sites and Our Lives” reaffirms the positive aspects of those collective relationships, revealing, for example, that Facebook users “get more social support than other people” and “are much more politically engaged than most people” and Myspace users are “more likely to be open to opposing points of view.”

And recent legislative and court decisions are affirming the right of youth to express themselves in these social networking spaces. A federal appeals court last week ruled that two Pennsylvania school districts violated students’ First Amendment rights when they suspended and punished students who had posted parody profiles of their principals on Myspace in 2005. And the California legislature refused to pass an online privacy bill that would have enabled parents to restrict the personal information their children posted online and would have given adults the right to demand that social networking sites immediately take down personal information that has been posted about them.

While questions remain, times—and our identities, public and private—are certainly a changin’.

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