Privacy-related Normativity in Online Social Networking

First published Tue Dec 9 22:39:55 2014 +0900 ; substantive revision Tue Dec 9 22:52:58 2014 +0900 ; Authored by nolze (submitted to "Active Learning of English for Students of the Arts", University of Tokyo, 2014)

Tags : Social Media SNS Privacy Social Norms

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Privacy is a fundamental human right for all people, naturally to U. S. citizens as well, whose right to privacy is declared in the Constitution of the United States. The circumstances concerning privacy seem to be changing rapidly in the era of online social networking and sharing. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of the world’s largest social networking service Facebook, stated1, “[p]rivacy is no longer social norm.” His claim seems somewhat true, as people certainly share a great amount of variety of private information, like portrait photographs.

However, it is also certain that online privacy is still one of the massive and controversial issues to this day. In this paper, I figure out a paradoxical trend in online privacy and disclosure with a thorough understanding of the actual awareness of privacy based on a census and researches held in the United States. My overall thesis is that social norms in privacy among connected users prompt excessive privacy disclosure, which often leads to social problems, while those between a user and users those who are unconnected to him/her discourage him/her for disclosing privacy.

As a matter of fact, U. S. citizens have been concerning their privacy in social networks well until today, no less than thereof in the real world. In 1995, 1999 and 2000, the United States Census Bureau took a census about U.S. citizens’ attitude to their privacy in general. It stated that the rates of people who were very worried about the privacy were 22.0%, 25.7% and 25.0% respectively, and in the almost stable transition (Singer et al., 2001). In regards to online privacy in social networks, a Carnegie Mellon University study proved that an indivisual’s privacy concerns are “only a weak predictor” of his or her membership to online social networks, observing around 7,000 Facebook users (Acquisti and Gross, 2006). Accordingly, even in the case of online social networking participants, they are as aware of privacy as those who are not taking part in online social networking. Likewise, on the contrary to the Zuckerberg’s claim, seven-year time series analysis on Facebook users found out that they became more aware on their privacy through using Facebook (Stutzman et al., 2013).

In online social networks, people care about their privacy as well as in the real world they do, despite more and more information about indivisual’s daily life posted there by them. That is an obvious reason why online privacy is highly contentious; the actual situation of online privacy is conflicting with the actual state of its value. To explain people’s ambivalence towards their privacy in online social networking, a concept called “privacy paradox” had been invented in the fields of the Internet Studies, such as cyberpsychology and cyberlaw. American journalist Brad Stone introduced the “privacy paradox” in his article posted on the New York Times website2:

normally sane people have inconsistent and contradictory impulses and opinions when it comes to their safeguarding their own private information.

To resolve the paradox, I propose two distinctive types of privacy; external privacy and internal privacy. External privacy is a user’s privacy in the relationship with non-users and unconnected users in online social networks. Correspondingly, internal privacy is a user’s privacy in the relationship with his or her connected users in online social networks. Every information in online social networks has both sides of privacy.

Actually, external privacy is a familiar concept to everyone. There are many well-known problems related to external privacy, such like cyberstalking, spamming, account spoofing, data mining for advertising, and so on. Identity theft by crackers is one of such external privacy problems. For example, in 2011, an American man was convicted for breaking into over a hundred women’s e-mail accounts by abusing their personal information3. It is worth noting that he collected the e-mail address and other information on Facebook, which had been made publicly accessible by user, so that he could find clues about the victim’s answer to secret questions to access the password of her e-mail account.

In fact, since the problems related to external privacy is widely recognized and discussed, social norms to prevent them are getting established; at least, no one encourages you to make your private information available for everyone today. Conversely, one of the external privacy-related norms is to make sure that your private information is not set open, because most of the external privacy problems caused by imprudent privacy settings. An actual instance of the penetrating normative actions is the stricter disclosure policy on public profile. According to research held for six years since 2005, the number of users who share any phone number on their public profiles in Facebook is decreasing to a one-fifth by 2011 (Stutzman et al., 2013).

Important to realize, some dominant social networking services have improved their privacy settings and designs of user interfaces, as the understanding of external privacy problems is developed and researchers point out the services’ technical flaws. For example, in 2011, Facebook added a feature for its users to check by their own how their profiles appear to others, so that they can notice any information being public unintentionally. In addition, all kinds of enlightenment activities contribute spreading social norms related to external privacy. Both conventional medias like TV and online medias pick up the problems frequently, because the issues like cyberstalking often lead to penal offenses.

As shown above, in the context of external privacy, an influential social norm is that users should protect privacy from unknowns and it can be done by proper settings. External privacy is becoming easier to control well with better default settings and designs of social networking services.

Internal privacy is another key point to understand the paradox in online social networks.

The more people get participated in online social networking, the more social problems similar to the real world appeared there. It became clear that users felt stressed, jealousy and envy in online social networks, no less than in the real world (Muise et al., 2009). A point often overlooked is the digital characteristics of these problems, namely, some problems related to internal privacy are enhanced by the information technology. The depression caused by Facebook, called Facebook Depression, is one of the technology-enhanced problems. Facebook Depression is unique because the flood of personal information, which would be inaccessible without online social networks, makes users feel bad (Kross et al., 2013).

In contrast to normative activities related to external privacy, ones related to internal privacy tend to prompt a user to make his or her privacy open by participating or committing more in online social networking. First of all, participating in online social networks is becoming an obligation. Some 16% of adults, and 23% of young adults aged 18-29 had felt obligated to join a group in online social networks (Rainie et al., 2011). Also the Pew Research Center survey emphasizes that teens taking part in Facebook are disliking excessive sharing and stressful “drama” in Facebook, but they keep using it because participation is an important part of overall teenage socializing. In short, online social networking has become a “social burden” for them. Under those circumstances, in the case of teens, the amount of information about themselves on online social networks is increasing (Madden et al., 2013). Portrait photograph is one of types of personal information mentioned in the survey. Sharing more photographs reveals more private life and relationship to everyone in the online social network, because their photographs shared in social networks are strongly focused on social relationships (Mendelson et al, 2010). Furthermore, social networking services foster uploading more information. For example, Facebook started to attach a user’s geographical location information to every kind of his or her posts by default in 2011.

It is claimed that peer pressures strengthen social norms in online social networks, same to real world ones (Govani, 2005). In terms of contents that the norms require, narcissism and signaling provokes people to upload private information (Utz, et al, 2009). It must be remembered that some information, like ones in the form of photograph, has a kind of privacy by nature. A French critic Roland Barthes noted in his book Camera Lucida - Reflrections on Photography, “[t]he “private life” is nothing but that zone of space, of time, where I am not an image, an object” and that photography invades privacy inevitably. It even distorts the identity of the user in online social networking (Winston, 2013).

All things considered, in the context of internal privacy, social norms impel user to disclose privacy to connected users by posting comments, photographs, videos and all other forms of information. Even though social norms related to external privacy are getting improved, it seems to be the unsolvable difficulty that internal privacy problems are based on social interactions, which are unavoidable in any forms of human society and community. It is true that internal privacy cannot be controlled by nothing but by one’s decision-making, which is often affected by peer, since internal privacy is rather a psychosomatic concept. However, information technology not only makes the problems complicated but helps people to form better social norms. Users can have better social interactions in online social networks by making use of and taking advantage of the networks’ digital characteristics. Raynes-Goldie reported some new privacy-enhancing norms related to internal privacy; “aliases”, “creeping”, and “wall cleaning” in Facebook. For instance, “wall cleaning” is to “delete” information a user uploaded on Facebok, after a few days (Raynes-Goldie, 2010). Doing so, he or she can reduce the amount of shared information, which sometimes causes others’ stress or becomes the source of the dispute.

While social norms in terms of external privacy discourage privacy disclosure, those in the terms of internal privacy tend to promote disclosing so much privacy that accelerates the problems in online social networking. The root of the “privacy paradox” is that people care about privacy in one hand, but not in the other hand. To resolve the matters, balanced normativity in both types of privacy should be taken in a deeper account.

  1. Johnson, Bobbie. “Privacy no longer a social norm, says Facebook founder …” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2010/jan/11/facebook-privacy>.

  2. Stone, Brad. “Our Paradoxical Attitudes Toward Privacy.” New York Times. The New York Times Company, 2008. Web. 9 Dec. 2014. <http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/07/02/our-paradoxical-attitudes-towards-privacy/>.

  3. “Social Media Stalker Sentenced to Four Years in State Prison.” Department of Justice, 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.

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  2. Govani, Tabreez, and Harriet Pashley. “Student awareness of the privacy implications when using Facebook.” unpublished paper presented at the “Privacy Poster Fair” at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Library and Information Science 9 2005: n. pag.

  3. Kross, Ethan et al. “Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults.” PLoS ONE 8.8 2013: n. pag.

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