Friday, 10 January 2014

Reflections on the influence of social media on privacy

Akin Olaniyan is a student in the Social Media MA at the University of Westminster. 

Making sense of the obvious tension between online visibility and privacy is never going to be a straightforward thing for me. Having worked as a reporter and a corporate communication specialist for more than two decades, I have some sense of dealing with public scrutiny of my work. Until now, social media was just for me another platform. If you know newspapers, I used to think, you shouldn’t have problems functioning in the new environment that digital convergence has created.

Or so I thought.

Just weeks after arriving for the Social Media MA at Westminster University, I have come to agree with danah boyd that being visible through social media can both complicate and enrich our lives (boyd, 2012). Social media networking sites like Facebook and Twitter offer new ways of engagement that have collapsed the walls of privacy, sometimes with terrible consequences. Henry Jenkins captures this well when he says, ‘when people take media into their own hands, the results can be wonderfully creative; they can also be bad news for all involved.’ For me, herein lies the irony; the thought that we would be willing to trade off a slice of our privacy for a chance to make ourselves ‘visible.’

The culture of sharing that is one of the tenets of the convergent media environment may be fraught with minefields, but Castells’ point, that, ‘In our society, the protocols of communication are not based on a sharing of culture but on the culture of sharing’ (Castells, 2009) is useful here. The new environment has given us ‘power’ to determine what we create, remix, share, anytime we want and with those we choose.

True, in the social media environment, ‘the media are no longer what just what we watch, listen to or read – the media are now what we do’ (Meikle and Young, 2012). Oh! How we enjoy the newfound freedom, to do away with the middleman and reach out in our network. Never mind that I performed a similar role in a newspaper. Maybe it sounds out of place to ask whether social media serves a critical need. The status updates, the likes and the sometimes, meaningless chatter all serve a need. They bind us together. “Our playful conventions and in-jokes may create insider symbols that help groups to cohere’ as Baym (2010) notes very well.

Notwithstanding, it looks to me like Rosen’s description of the people formerly known as the audience is rather too ‘romantic’. For one, corporate media may no longer ‘own the eyeballs’ as he states but in this process of becoming more active, we lose something important as well. Given what I have leant in just a few weeks, boyd’s argument that, ‘when people assume you share everything, they don’t ask about what you don’t share’ (boyd, 2012), for me, sounds frightening even in the era of ‘Big Brother’. We all have a way of ignoring ‘Big Brother’ until we’re caught in uncompromising positions.

My mind went to Boyd’s position the story of the UK university students whose Facebook profiles were swiped by and published without permission, in the latest example of third party misuse of online data. The all pervasive power of both Facebook and Twitter, to be able to remove whatever exists of the thin line between the private and the public has got me taking a second look at my accounts on social media platforms.

My goal? Cut out all but the most important of my engagements online. Every text, every image and ever engagement is an opportunity to say something and connect. As Baym (2010) says, “…as people appropriate the possibilities of textual media to convey social cues, create immediacy, entertain, and show off for one another, they build for themselves, build interpersonal relationships, and create social concepts….” 

I realize as I do this though, that there’s a chance that I may miss out in other ways but the thought that my profile and other data can be taken, remixed and shared sounds worrying.

Maybe I’m old fashioned but I strongly think there’s a creepy feeling to having a text, say, an unflattering selfie made available on the scale that convergent media makes possible. But having seen the reaction of some of the students whose profiles were swiped by, I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t be embarrassed unless they were in showbiz.

boyd, d. (2012): Participating in the always-on lifestyle. In: Mandiberg, M (ed.) The social media reader. New York/London: New York University Press, Pp 71-76

Jenkins, H. (2008): Convergence culture: Where old media and new media collide. New York/London: New York University Press

Castells, M. (2009): Communication power. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Meikle, G. and Young, S. (2012): Media convergence: Networked Digital media in everyday life. London: Palgrave

Baym, K. N. (2010): Personal connections in the digital age. Cambridge: Polity

Rosen, Jay: The people formerly known as the audience. In: Mandiberg, M (ed.) The social media reader. New York/London: New York University Press, pp. 13-16


  1. Thanks Akin for this thoughtful post. Here is a question for you: if savvy users like you (and me!) carefully decide what engagements, text and image we share, what are the implications for the researchers who count on users' posts for data? In other words, if we are observing/scraping posts, must we begin to assume that they are the writings of people who lack awareness of the issues you've highlighted in this post? How might findings be skewed if more privacy-educated people withhold posts on certain topics? Good food for thought.

    1. Your observations are very correct, Janet. Unfortunately, i doubt if there are quick fixes but i reckon social media researchers will just have to factor in this fact when they collect data from posts. Regardless of the trend for people to 'behave' when they're on social media thug, i still believe that the need to create and share that defines personal connections is far too strong to drive people away from social media. One prediction i guess would be that some platforms would be better in terms of collecting data that others. I leave my more serious online engagement for LinkedIn, for instance, very much in the same way that i would rather select the FT if i were to run some serious corporate campaign.

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  4. In the social media environment, ‘the media are no longer what just what we watch, listen to or read – the media are now what we do.

  5. I must say that social media and privacy does not go well with each other. We can say that our social media profiles is our private space, but hey we post our updates in a public space that’s free for everyone to see. That's why it’s really important to be careful of what we say. No wonder we ourselves are usually the first ones who get victimized of our own negligence.

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