Friday, 3 November 2017

Accidental Disclosure in the Online Medium

This blog is written by Ana Latia, a student at Cardiff University. She has been studying relevant sociological theories and methods for how we can understand the digital society and how the Internet shapes our everyday lives.

To what extent does the performance on Facebook distorts someone’s identity and how is their privacy put in danger?
I am writing this in order to contribute to the conflicting debates concerning privacy on social media. This will examine individuals’ behaviours and performances on Facebook while having the concept of ‘accidental disclosure’ as its main focus.
A large number of academics started recently to address problems such as users’ sense of privacy when using digital media. I find it very interesting how the digital world is very distinctive when talking about countries all around the world and findings may differ. For instance, there are individuals who are not aware of the fact that the content they share on Facebook can travel long distances in the online medium. The memes phenomenon is the most accurate example of people that are found on Facebook doing unconventional things and then their images, videos or texts are transformed into a meme that circulates all around the internet. This also raises questions regarding privacy and also the extent to which people are aware of accidental disclosure.
The information that we provide on social media can now reach a very large number of individuals within seconds. With regard to Facebook, identity is performed by interacting with other people, through pictures, videos, or over messenger, comments and likes. Social practices become permanent and reachable once they are performed online (Solove 2007). Accidental disclosure in this case refers to the unintended reveal of personal information; when a user posts sensitive information about themselves on a social networking site such as Facebook, or when someone provides confidential material without the user’s authorization. This is important in social media as people cannot monitor everything they share as they are not only evaluated by what they post online, but also on their peers’ actions (Jerningan and Mistree 2009).
Perceptions about privacy and practices on Facebook have developed over time (Vitak 2017: 636). According to Chakrabortly et al (2013) and Madden et al (2013), younger users on Facebook tend to disclose a lot more information; they also have less restrictive attitudes on the issues of sharing personal information.
In May this year I conducted a small research project in order to understand individual’s opinion about accidental disclosure and how this concept shapes their performance on Facebook. The methodology used involved semi-structured interviews and visual methods in the form of images (collected from Facebook), while the sample was composed of three undergraduate students from Cardiff University.
Analysing these interviews and photos as social performances demonstrated the extent to which apparently ‘private’ experiences of the self are manifested by means of displaying photos on social media. All three interviewees admitted that they construct a self-identity on Facebook. Moreover, all of them claimed that at some point they would not share personal information if it will be seen by a large public. They were all fully aware that employers might look on their social media accounts and therefore, they divided their Facebook profile into two parts – close friends and general public.
A big impact that this study provides is that it has practical implication. The findings can articulate how constrained a person feels when constructing an identity on Facebook. Moreover, this can also provide advice for employers who use social media for selecting people and make them ask themselves: “Is this who X really is?”. For example, two of the respondents claimed that they do not feel that the identity that they construct on Facebook is accurate.
All of these represent a starting point for a better understanding of contemporary Facebook phenomena; studying individuals’ attitudes and behaviours on Facebook helps advance theory within social media studies.


·         Solove, D. 2007. The future of reputation: Gossip, rumor, and privacy on the Internet. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
·         Jernigan, C. and Mistree, B. 2009. “Gaydar: Facebook friendships expose sexual orientations.” In First Monday 14(10). Online. Available: 1/2302 [Accessed: 03.12.2016].
·         Vitak, J. 2017. “Facebook as a Research Tool in the Social and Computer Sciences”. In Sloan, L. and Quan-Haase, A. eds. 2017. The SAGE Handbook of Social Media Research Methods. Sage Publications. Online. Available at:  [Accessed: 08.03.2017].