Facebook information and privacy: enticing or overwhelming?

There are a lot of users of Facebook and similar sites. One of the primary concerns of users is privacy: who can see their personal information and how it might be used. Two commentators talk about how users respond to this issue:

Sociologist Nathan Jurgenson has an interesting post about Facebook and his skepticism about proclamations of the end of privacy and anonymity. He deploys the postmodernist/poststructuralist insight that each piece of information shared raises more questions about what hasn’t been said, and thus strategic sharing can create different realms of personal privacy and public mystery.

We know that knowledge, including what we post on social media, indeed follows the logic of the fan dance: we always enact a game of reveal and conceal, never showing too much else we have given it all away. It is better to entice by strategically concealing the right “bits” at the right time. For every status update there is much that is not posted. And we know this. What is hidden entices us.

I think this is missing the point. I feel like I need to use all caps to stress this: LOTS OF PEOPLE DON’T WANT ATTENTION. They don’t want to be enticing. Privacy is not about hiding the truth. It’s about being able to avoid the spotlight…

Social media confronts us with how little control we have over our public identity, which is put into play and reinterpreted and tossed around while we watch—while all the distortions and gossip gets fed back to us by the automated feedback channels. Some people find this thrilling. Others find it terrible. It’s always been true that we don’t control how we are seen, but at least we could control how much we had to know about it. It’s harder now to be aloof, to be less aware of our inevitable performativity. We are forced instead to fight for the integrity of our manufactured personal brand.

Jurgenson seems to be referring to the impression management work done by users who are able to craft their image. Most users know that certain pieces of information can hurt them, such as unpleasant photos, so they don’t include that information. Even more so, users try to present a positive image of themselves with generally happy pictures and an acceptable set of interests and activities. And there is a lot that is hidden: I would guess that a majority of users post pretty infrequently. This impression management, reminiscent of Goffman’s front-stage/back-stage dichotomy, has been well established by researchers.

Rob Horning, responding to Jurgenson, suggests that Facebook exposes “how little control we have over our public identity.” This may be true: even small pieces of information might present problems. Additionally, I think he is right in saying that a lot of users don’t want attention: they simply want a low-maintenance way to connect with current and past friends.

But, I would argue that users have a good amount of control over their “public identity” on the Internet. To start, they don’t have to participate and a sizable minority does not. It seems like the easiest way to lose control over what is available on the Internet is to post it yourself, whether on Facebook or a blog or Twitter feed or somewhere else. Second, even if one does participate, Jurgenson suggests that much still remains hidden. There are few people who are willing to reveal everything and few who actually want to. (I’ve always wondered if Facebook users are mostly annoyed with those people who do seem to present everything, good and bad, through their profiles.) Third, one can be friends who they want, limiting who is going to see and possibly use this information. I think a lot of the genius of Facebook is that users feel like they are in control of these aspects and generally resist efforts that use their information in ways that they may not desire. In the end, there are ways in which one can participate without doing much or exposing much.

Horning’s conclusion is interesting: “It’s harder now to be aloof, to be less aware of our inevitable performativity. We are forced instead to fight for the integrity of our manufactured personal brand.” Perhaps this is the real issue, not privacy: since we know that there are others crafting their personal image, we now have the choice to keep up or not. It is not quite a competition but rather mediated social interaction where we can see how others (and they can see how we) “put ourselves together” online. The SNS realm is now another social realm to worry about and it is hard to get away from: did I post a witty enough comment? Is that picture flattering of me? Should I be Facebook friends with that person I never really talked to? These decisions may be consequential…or they may not.

0 thoughts on “Facebook information and privacy: enticing or overwhelming?

  1. cool post! my only issue is your statement that “[t]he SNS realm is now another social realm to worry about and it is hard to get away from.” if i could slightly re-conceptualize your worry, it would be to state that social media is not so much “another realm”, but instead highly integrated; facebook has everything to do with our lives offline, and our lives offline are highly influenced by facebook (and the rest of social media). it is not a new reality we have to worry about, but an augmented reality. http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/02/24/digital-dualism-versus-augmented-reality/

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    • I agree that Facebook is highly integrated with the rest of the life, particularly since many or most of the online friends people make there are people they already know. What I was trying to get at is that users have another arena/realm in which they can interact with others and so they have to devote time and energy to this in addition to contact with people face-to-face or by phone or text message.

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