Privacy and Disclosure in a Social Networking Community
- Context collapse
When multiple distinct audiences (e.g., family, coworkers, friends) are flattened into a single homogenous group; occurs in offline (e.g., wedding) and online (e.g., Facebook “Friends”) environments
- Impression management
Sum of behaviors individuals engage in to either control or manipulate attributions other people form about them. See also self-presentation
Ability of individuals to seclude themselves – or information about themselves – from the public; ability to selectively control information distribution about oneself
Form of self-presentation; according to Wheeless and Grotz (1976), selfdisclosure is “any message about the self that a person communicates with another” (p. 338)
Process by which individuals reveal and/or conceal specific aspects of the self to others through verbal or nonverbal behaviors. See also impression management
- Social capital
Support- and information-based resources accrued through interactions with members of one’s social network
- Social network site (SNS)
According to Ellison and boyd (2013), SNSs are networked communication platforms that contain three primary characteristics: (1) a user profile, (2) the ability to create and view a list of bi- or unidirectional connections, and (3) the ability to create, produce, and interact with usergenerated content. Examples include Face-book, Twitter, Google+, and YouTube.
Balancing Privacy and Disclosures Online: A Tense Relationship
The relationship between privacy and disclosure in online spaces is a hotly debated topic, with research emerging in recent years from a variety of fields, including sociology, psychology, computer science, and communication. The growth and popularity of social network sites (SNSs) – which enable users to connect and interact with hundreds of “friends” online – has become the focal point of this discussion, as users share personal information with a wide audience ranging from close friends and coworkers to strangers. The following section provides a broad overview of the primary theories and topics related to this area of research, highlighting the affordances of SNSs, the inherent tensions between maintaining one’s privacy and disclosing information with an audience, and the evolution of user practices over time as the population of users both expands and matures.
When discussing privacy and disclosure, the two constructs are often plotted at opposite ends of a spectrum. For example, Petronio (2002) argues in framing her Communication Privacy Management theory that “privacy and disclosure are opposites having distinct features from one another that function in incompatible ways. … disclosing implies that we are giving up some measure of privacy” (pp. 14–15). In other words, this theory argues that one cannot maintain privacy once self-disclosures have been made. Rather, individuals employ a variety of strategies to manage dissemination of private information.
That said, self-disclosure is a necessary requirement in relationship formation and maintenance. A number of social science theories describe the process by which two individuals move through relational stages from strangers to friends, with a focus on mutual disclosure. For example, uncertainty reduction theory (Berger and Calabrese 1975) describes the process by which two individuals engage in self-disclosures to reduce uncertainty about their partner. Likewise, Altman and Taylor’s (1973) social penetration theory describes the development of relationships as a gradual process of self-disclosure. In both of these theories, closeness is associated with a greater quantity and intimacy of disclosures.
But where does privacy fit into these processes? At its most basic level, privacy is typically framed as a state of social isolation (e.g., a private room in a hotel). Altman (1975), however, views privacy as a dynamic process of boundary regulation in which the individual makes decisions regarding which pieces of personal information to share with whom, as well as the context in which that information is disclosed. Boundary regulation occurs through a number of processes: one may shut the door to a bedroom to prevent visitors from entering, choose to meet a friend at a private residence to discuss personal matters, or write down thoughts in a journal that is not shared with anyone.
In online social networking communities, additional social and technical features make the process of balancing privacy and disclosures more complicated. Unlike anonymous forums, where users can create virtual identities not connected to their “real” selves, SNSs such as Facebook and Google+ are based on users providing their real names and identity information. Because profiles on these sites are tied to real identities, and because users often share a significant amount of personal information through these sites (Nosko et al. 2010), privacy becomes a critical element to determining both who to connect with and what to disclose.
Privacy controls have evolved over time and vary by site. Facebook, for example, provides the greatest granularity in its privacy settings, allowing users to customize distribution of every piece of information posted to the site. While this may seem a boon on the surface, Facebook has faced harsh criticism over the years for making privacy controls too complicated and changing default settings without properly informing users. Facebook’s default settings have become increasingly focused on public sharing, even as users are increasingly likely to engage in privacy management strategies on SNSs (boyd and Hargittai 2010; Stutzman et al. 2011). CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended the site’s privacy policies in 2010, arguing that sharing information with one’s entire audience was the new “social norm”: “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people” (Kilpatrick 2010). Likewise, Google+ faced harsh criticism regarding its “real name” policy, including the threat it posed to at-risk populations (boyd 2011), and in late 2011, the site loosened restrictions on approved user names.
When looking at research on privacy and disclosures on SNSs, early researchers found evidence of a “privacy paradox” Barnes (2006); in other words, several researchers identified a disconnect between users’ privacy concerns and disclosures they made in their profiles, such that those with high privacy concerns did not modify or restrict the information they shared through the site to a greater degree than those with lower concerns (Acquisti and Gross 2006). However, more recent research suggests that privacy and disclosures are more closely related, with increased privacy concerns associated with decreased disclosure (Krasnova et al. 2010; Stutzman et al. 2011).
As previously noted, disclosures are an important component to relationship formation and maintenance, both on- and offline. One reason for this is that individuals’ personal connections provide access to support- and information-based resources, a concept known as social capital in the social sciences (Bourdieu 1985). Previous research has established a positive relationship between the use of the SNS Facebook and social capital (Burke et al. 2011; Ellison et al. 2007). More recently, theoretical work by Ellison and colleagues (2011b) argues that disclosures are a necessary requirement for accruing social capital on SNSs; however, privacy concerns may mediate individuals’ decision to disclose. This becomes problematic when one has a resource need, such as advice on an upcoming purchase or emotional support following a death in the family: if one’s network is not informed of the need, they will be unable to provide the necessary resources.
While such needs may be communicated through more private channels, such as a phone call or face-to-face meeting, SNSs provide a quick and convenient method to share content with a wide audience. SNSs enable creation of “social supernets” (Donath 2007) or networks of connections much larger than would be possible without technology. The average American adult has 229 Facebook “friends” (Hampton et al. 2011) who comprise a variety of personal and professional contexts, including family members, high school and college friends, coworkers, fellow members of a religious of community organization, and more.
Network composition matters in the disclosure/privacy debate when one considers how individuals self-present to their networks through SNSs. In his seminal research on the topic, Erving Goffman (1959) described self-presentation as a performance in which certain traits and attributes are highlighted while others are muted. These performances vary based on the audience for whom the individual is interacting; for example, a young professional may act, dress, and speak differently when interacting with his boss at the office than when meeting his friends for drinks after work.
In most face-to-face contexts, individuals are able to see – or at least perceive – their audience and adjust their self-presentation accordingly. As boyd (2008) notes, however, networked publics such as Facebook contain features that make this process more difficult, including invisible audiences, context collapse, and the blurring of public and private boundaries. No longer can individuals be sure that their disclosures will only be read by their intended audience, as content is often shared publicly or semipublicly (e.g., Facebook or Twitter updates) and technology enables users to share others’ content beyond their originally intended audience (e.g., Google+’s “Share” feature, “retweeting”).
When trying to balance privacy and disclosures on SNSs, context collapse offers benefits and barriers to individuals. On one hand, SNS users can quickly diffuse information across their entire network and facilitate interaction across diverse groups of individuals. On the other hand, communicating with such a diverse set of others through the same channel (e.g., status update) may become problematic when it prevents an individual from varying one’s self-presentation for different audiences. When facing this challenge, individuals have a number of options. Bernie Hogan (2010) suggests that users employ a “lowest common denominator” approach, whereby only content appropriate for all audiences is shared on the site. Alternatively, users may employ advanced privacy settings to disaggregate their audiences, so they can still share relevant content with their various connections. A few studies show preliminary support for this latter argument (Ellison et al. 2011b; Vitak 2012), although it is likely that users employ a number of strategies when making decisions regarding what content to share online and whom to share it with.
To summarize, the relationship between privacy and disclosures in social networking communities is an important and emerging area of research in the social sciences. While public disclosures may serve a number of benefits in terms of relationship maintenance and social capital, these disclosures also carry risks, especially in terms of sharing content with unintended audiences. Users of sites such as Facebook must balance the risks and rewards of connecting and engaging with others on these sites when making decisions related to what and with whom to interact; that said, research has identified a number of benefits derived from users’ active participation with their networks.
Questions related to privacy and disclosure online are becoming more important as an increasingly larger and more diverse set of users joins sites such as Facebook and as individuals’ digital footprints continue to grow. Foremost among many users’ concerns are questions about how to keep information shared through online channels from being viewed by the “wrong” people – be it an ex-boyfriend discovering you’ve begun dating again or a criminal trying to steal your identity. The obvious solution would be to simply not share any information through these sites; as former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in a TV interview, “Just remember when you post something, the computers remember forever” (Colbert Report 2010). But keeping this kind of information offline is becoming increasingly difficult, as there is a price to pay – often in terms of social resources – for not participating in these communities.
Keeping personal information private – or at least constrained to a predetermined set of individuals – is important for everyone, but research often neglects the most at-risk populations in favor of college students, who are often more educated and have different usage patterns than both younger and older users. Research should consider if design-based changes to popular SNSs could make privacy settings easier to understand for these groups (e.g., seniors, pre-teens, rural), as well as ways to notify users when potentially private information is about to be shared publicly.
Moving beyond the more practical drivers of future research, this area offers a tremendous amount of promise in developing and expanding theories of impression formation, impression management, relationship maintenance, and social capital. Researchers should continue to explore these topics in order to further our understanding of how people engage with SNSs and the benefits that are derived from that engagement.
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