Privacy and the audience: Who are you talking to?
As 2010 draws to a close, a topic has been dominating my thoughts on social media for a while now – privacy.
As one who could safely be tick-boxed in the ‘digital native’ bracket – changing online privacy settings when setting up new accounts is simply second nature.
But Facebook’s constant chopping and changing of their unnecessarily complicated privacy settings have not only been frustrating – but have thrown up a key question – should online privacy be the burden of the user or the platform?
Facebook privacy settings
In general terms – Facebook settings have caused some concern since most of the settings, by default, will be made public.
So posting up photos – something which would only be shared with friends when I joined Facebook in 2005/06 – can now be searchable via Google depending on your settings.
While the savvy online social mediarite might happily click through the privacy pages altering her settings to customized filters for different friends and family according to her will – a Facebook novice may not even know the difference.
My mother, for example, I introduced to Facebook last year and she now regularly enjoys using the network to keep up with friends and family and organise events. But the idea she could post some status updates to some friends and not others – similarly with wall posts – took a while to set in.
My mum is not the only one who finds the settings incredibly complicated. I’ve always considered Facebook a ‘private’ network – due to the fact you have to have an account to sign in and see content posted by others. Twitter, on the other hand, is ‘public’ – you do not need an account to see someone’s tweets (unless they’ve made them private). But people use Twitter and Facebook very differently – often feeling as though they are speaking to different sets of people or groups of friends.
Herein lies the rub. Privacy doesn’t lie in your settings on a social media account. Your privacy settings are ultimately in your mind and own sense of discretion – you filter the message or update before you even type it into the box on screen – deciding primarily who you are talking to.
I may decide to post a personal update on my whereabouts using the Facebook check-in function – but not necessarily want my bosses and colleagues to receive such personal updates. Therefore if Facebook decides this information is public by default – I need to first be aware of this and then change my privacy settings to make sure the content is not searchable.
Cases this year
Privacy cock-ups mainly occur when the ‘private audience’ the author feels they are talking to turns out to be rather more public.
Hence the Facebook family snap which was used as supermarket billboard advertising, the comments on a RIP page which are used in a local newspaper article, and finally the tweet sent as a reply to a friend which alerts anti-terror teams.
The latter is obviously the most extreme privacy story this year – when Paul Chambers tweeted, after being frustrated that his trip abroad was cancelled, a joke which was interpreted as a bomb threat to Robin Hood airport. This resulted in him being arrested, losing his job, and finally being convicted under the communications act for sending a menacing message.
Of course the Twitterati was outraged – and quickly began retweeting his original message and adding a Twibbon to their avatar pointing out that their message ‘may be a joke’.
Covering news in Cardiff this year, I have also followed the story of councillor John Dixon, who faced being reprimanded by the local public services watchdog after a year ago he tweeted during a trip to London to buy an engagement ring for his now-fiance.
He wasn’t on councillor business, and as he passed the church of scientology he made a comment about it being ‘stupid’. A complaint followed and Dixon faced a media tirade scrutinising his 140-character message sent to the world. In this case his colleagues on Cardiff council saw sense and dropped the case against him at the standards and ethics committee – arguing he was not tweeting in his capacity as a councillor (despite his username being CllrJohnDixon at the time) – and that even councillors need to have a certain element of freedom of speech via their leisure time social media accounts.
Privacy is a matter of context: Know your audience
But the main reason both Dixon and Chambers faced grave consequences for what they thought were lighthearted comments, is they were forgetting who their audience was – and that their message could be taken out of context.
More specifically – Chambers expected his tweet to be read by his friend who he could not visit, and maybe a few more of his followers on Twitter, and Dixon expected his tweet to be mainly of interest to his followers. Both forgot to consider just what could happen if their tweet was printed out of context on the front page of a newspaper (which is a pretty good rule of thumb for Twitterers).
Many people using Twitter will agree they think of a certain group of people reading their tweets. Some even use different accounts to try to separate the professional and private faces they use in real life.
It often takes a couple of bad experiences where a private message has been made public for you to be more careful about checking privacy settings and reminding yourself of your audience. But as social networks increasingly change the privacy settings to make them public by default – there is an argument the service provider must take responsibility as much as the user to protect people from gross misuse of private information.
It seems to me this is one of the biggest social media issues of 2010 – I’d welcome people’s thoughts on the subject in the comments box below.
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