Skip to Content

Privacy & Data

A Social Media Enthusiast’s Privacy Conundrum

If I learned one thing at SXSW (other than the fact that man cannot live on BBQ alone) it was that working in both the social media and privacy advocate space can be really challenging.  My experiences with the draw of new social media toys like location-enabled devices combating the push of raising awareness of oversharing and online privacy have been documented in our video adventures, but still I find myself intrigued by what seem to be two opposing core values instilled in the privacy and social media communities, respectively.
At the conference I spent a lot of time with social media and new media communications specialists from various organizations. While they did vary in age – a majority, would be considered millennials and were definitely the younger, savvy "I grew up using the Internet" types of folks.  They all said pretty much the same thing when it came to their approaches and goals from social media outreach:  they were looking to be able to connect with as many people interested in the same subject matter as they are.  Oversharing?  Not a concern, as long as they have control over what is sent out.  Privacy settings? Used, but not with the mindset of how much personal information is unknowingly exposed to third-party applications and more in the "I hope my boss doesn't see this photo" realm.  Where a privacy advocate might look at social media applications and look first at what information is being distributed and where it’s going, most folks in the social media space are focused on sharing as much as possible to make as many connections as possible and build their networks online.  Obviously, this can be quite the conundrum for a privacy advocate.
The essence of social media is to promote sharing and new connections.  This is a space where meeting strangers is actually preferred. The Internet is viewed as a tool, connecting everyone through his or her favorite movies, foods, political views, photographs, music, ideas, etc., but the concepts that lay the foundation for an online privacy advocate are to preach moderation and think before you “tweet” – so to speak.  While social media enthusiasts want to be able to have options and controls, they also don't seem likely to proactively fight for these things unless something occurs that would threaten them (see:  the Facebook Terms of Service change from a few years ago or Google's launch of Buzz).  There was more of an expectation about how their information was being used and shared, and any surprises to their preconceived notions about privacy would quickly sour the experience.  Too savvy to be completely ignorant to how data is used, but too enthralled by the concept of finding new ways to connect with people to make privacy during usage a priority ask.  As I watched someone use an application to "check in" at a local eatery, it never seemed to cross their mind that they have the right to ask, "Where is my data going?" or "Am I satisfied with the amount of control I have?"  The goal is more about finding new connections and keeping up on the new trends.
Don’t get me wrong – I definitely see the benefits of location-enabled applications like Foursquare and Gowalla.  I definitely appreciate the benefits of being able to search indexed tweets for potential new friends and followers.  I just also know that more often than not, I find myself forced to be hypocritical about my approach to building support for online privacy issues by having to, well, data mine for new users and advocates.  Online privacy groups face the challenge of building followers and new supporters through the use of software and applications that they’re usually skeptical about.
I think the answer I discovered after five days in Austin was that moderation and creating more voices of reason in the social media space is the key to a balance between the worlds of privacy and social networking.  Studies and history have shown that people want more control when they feel like it's being taken away.  It's increasing user control over the information shared by using one of these applications (and making these controls front and center) that helps bridge the gap between privacy and social media.  One of the things I liked particularly about the location-enabled applications was that they gave me the option of broadcasting my information over an external network (such as through a Facebook or Twitter status update) or keeping it within my network of selected friends also using that particular application.  The options and choices and controls were there, but could've been easier to find and navigate.  This is the key to bringing the privacy and social media worlds together because as people's ability to make choices about what they want to share increase with every new connecting application – both sides win.  When people are aware of the ramifications of their actions online and know what they are signing up for, they have made their choice to deal with the consequences – no matter how much personal data that may involve.