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Friday, November 07, 2008

Invisible publics

In this digital-media age, teens' invisible audiences are many: relatives, employers, marketers, school officials, government agencies, and possibly even stalkers. Another way to think of some of these publics - not just marketers - is as "data miners," mining on an individual level (mining individuals' private thoughts made public) as well as mining profiles in aggregate. Yet, I'm seeing it said in a number of research papers and analyses that teens are either not aware of these invisible publics or choosing not to care. In a paper in FirstMonday - "A privacy paradox: Social networking in the United States" - Susan Barnes looks at the implications, asking if social networkers really have any privacy. She mentions privacy scholar Oscar Gandy’s "metaphor of a Panopticon - an architectural design that allowed prisoners to be monitored by observers" and writes that "online social networks allow for high levels of surveillance.... Social-networking sites create a central repository of personal information. These archives are persistent and cumulative." New information is not replaced in this global archive of innermost thoughts; it's just moved down. So, instead of the well-used definition of privacy that might make teens' eyes glaze over, parents and teens might consider this as worth protecting: "Privacy isn't just about hiding things. It's about self-possession, autonomy, and integrity." Barnes is quoting Simson Garfinkel, author of Database Nation. Parents, note that many teens already practice this approach by adding fictional elements to their online profiles (see "Fictionalizing their profiles"). Barnes makes this point too, while pointing to potential social, technical, and legal solutions. I agree with her that "it will take all levels of society to tackle the social issues related to teens and privacy," and that "awareness is key."

Related links

  • The Digital Natives Project's Diana Kimball takes you (anyone) on a "field trip" through Facebook's privacy controls.

  • I'd be very interested to know - via anne(at) - if what you hear from your kids when together you dig into this subject (in a single family discussion or over time) is not the rough equivalent to: "Young people today are already developing an attitude toward their privacy that is simultaneously vigilant and laissez-faire. They curate their online personas as carefully as possible, knowing that everyone is watching - but they have also learned to shrug and accept the limits of what they can control." That's from Clive Thompson in the New York Times Magazine.

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