Things that caught our eye

Privacy Online: From Access to Content, to Access to Meaning

1 Oct , 2014  | by:

danah boyd’s newest blog entry is – again – a very insightful read. She argues that privacy on the Internet is more complex than the mere control of access to personal information:

Achieving privacy requires a whole slew of skills, not just in the technological sense, but in the social sense. Knowing how to read people, how to navigate interpersonal conflict, how to make trust stick. This is far more complex than people realize, and yet we do this every day in our efforts to control the social situations around us.

(Many of) today’s teenagers know that they cannot control the access to their online information. So, they try to control their privacy via access to meaning. One tactic to do so is social steganography, i.e., to hide messages and meaning in plain sight. boyd and Marwick – in the longer, more academic version of the text – provide an example of social steganography:

Carmen, a 17-year-old Latina from Massachusetts, uses Facebook to talk to friends and family. She loves her mother’s involvement in her life, but feels that her mother has a tendency to jump in inappropriately and overreact unnecessarily online. Carmen gets frustrated when her mother comments on her Facebook posts “Because then it scares everyone away. Everyone kind of disappears after the mom post … And it’s just uncool having your mom all over your wall, that’s just lame.” When Carmen and her boyfriend broke up, she wanted sympathy and support from her friends. Her inclination was to post sappy song lyrics that reflected her sad state of mind, but she was afraid that her mother would overreact; it had happened before. Knowing that her Argentinean mother would not recognize references to 1970s British comedy, Carmen decided to post lyrics from a movie that she had recently watched with her geeky friends. When her mom saw the update, “Always look on the bright side of life,” she commented that it was great to see Carmen doing so well. Her friends, recognizing the lyric came from the Monty Python film Life of Brian where the main character is being crucified, immediately texted her.

However, exercising control over one’s privacy via access to meaning can be very difficult as well, since others can publish unwanted content and meanings, for example by tagging embarrassing pictures or commenting in undesired ways.

In a networked setting, teens cannot depend on single-handedly controlling how their information is distributed. What their peers share about them, and what they do with the information they receive cannot be regulated technically, but must be negotiated socially. […] no technical solution can provide complete reassurance. Instead, teenagers often rely on interpersonal relationship management to negotiate who shares what about them, who does what with their information, and how their reputations are treated.


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