Privacy in Social Media — The Issues and What Can Be Done About Them

February 15

Most people in the world tend to lead two types of lives, public and private. The way we keep the things we do not wish to share with others private has been engrained into us from an early age — in a public place, we instinctively lower our voice to confide something to only a select audience around us — in the real world, we get immediate feedback and have a sense as to where and when it is appropriate to use such techniques to control our privacy[1]. This is not so in the digital world, where sense of space and context exist as totally removed and still largely unexplored notions.

In the digital sphere, it is much more difficult to determine the context and audience that we are publishing content to. Although most social media networks today will give their users some means to control their privacy, only a few of the popular services will be privacy-centric, focused on providing powerful tools to enable users to control their environment and publishing options. This is somewhat to be expected, as social networks themselves grow in size and relevance from information shared by their users and most networks would encourage them to be as public as possible to assist this growth. This might begin to seem less strange if we consider the fact that the monetization possibilities for a popular and highly active social network, including revenue from direct marketing and online advertising, can be immense.

An interesting point to note here is that our choice of social network is not the same as that of the brand of our new car or television set, as it's hardly a 'free market' in the world of social media. People will join networks that their friends or audiences use, and Facebook is currently the obvious choice, at least in the Western world. Being on the forefront with a current user-base that exceeds 400 million people worldwide, Facebook makes a lot of its competitors seem almost irrelevant — they simply happen to 'not be Facebook'. And although Facebook started as a small but very privacy-conscious network of college students in the US, its founder Mark Zuckerberg suggested that a social shift is happening towards a 'more public, less private' world, in an attempt to defend his company's changes to their privacy settings[2]. For example, default settings on a Facebook account will share all user information and published content with everyone else on the network, as a more 'open' approach is systematically being promoted, and this is where a lot of issues and concerns begin to arise. Similarly, on other popular networks such as Myspace, LinkedIn, Orkut (very popular in Brazil), Mixi (Japan's number one social media platform) and Google's Buzz, privacy settings again don't seem to be considered a top priority. A lot of users are unaware of how to use these settings and, especially on Facebook, research has shown that almost 80% of users have never changed any of the default settings on their accounts[1].

By defaulting to openness, Facebook is almost 'pushing' its users to publish information about themselves and others that they wouldn't normally do if they fully understood the context or knew the specific people that they are sharing it all with. A number of stories have hit the media in the past about people publishing the 'wrong' things online, and sharing information about themselves that ended up having direct implications to their real lives. A simple and much more common example would be the case when somebody we do not know or trust very much decides to comment on our latest holiday photos. A sense of awkwardness can be evident, as we might feel that our privacy is being invaded, even if it is at a very subtle level.

This is not to say that there are no better ways to control our privacy on social networks. This could happen to a large extent by allowing users more transparent control. Imagine if Facebook or Orkut featured so-called 'privacy wizards' i.e. automated tools to assist you with setting up your privacy settings when creating a new account on those networks. These wizards could go one step further and pop up every time somebody attempts to publish content on those networks, warning users about the possible ramifications of their actions and giving them instant feedback about the people that they are about to share things with. Once the user is more confident with these processes, wizards could be simply turned off so as to not be in any way intrusive and hinder the experience.

Additionally, default privacy settings should not allow users to be more 'open' than they would expect to be. By defaulting to somewhat more limiting publishing options, and informing the user that this is the case, one would have to train him/herself into using the privacy settings even if it is just to be able to turn most of them on. In this case however, it becomes a conscious decision, and there are far more chances that the user will give privacy more thought and proactively engage with configuring their social environment. It would also be very helpful if these settings were highly visible on the user interface and not in any way 'hidden' under obscure menus, where people are less likely to discover and experiment with them.

Finally, a very useful feature that is hardly known by most people using Facebook, once which we would like to see featuring prominently on other social networks too, is what is known as a 'Friends List'. As the notion of a friend on a virtual network is very much simplified and has little to do with the complexities of a real-life friendship[1], lists give some more control and extended depth by allowing to organize your friends in groups (i.e. family members, work colleagues, classmates, etc.) and use them to share content appropriately and within the right context. Using Friend Lists is a simple yet powerful technique that could be further extended and actively promoted by social networks. However, it seems that only a few people are currently aware of its existence[1].

The privacy issue becomes even more complex when the social media sphere merges with Location-based services. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, 'Locational privacy' (also known as 'location privacy') is the ability of an individual to move in public space with the expectation that under normal circumstances their location will not be systematically and secretly recorded for later use"[3]. Location-based social media, such as the increasingly popular FourSquare, drop right in the middle of the location privacy debate, as they continue to grow by inviting users to share their physical location, which is then stored and broadcasted. Understandably, sharing your location with your friends or making social plans on the fly can be appealing. Many people will go further and quite happily broadcast their daily activities openly to everyone (via FourSquare's direct postings onto their Twitter feed)[4].

Similarly, people need to be careful and conscious of the information they share. Some would argue that 'location sharing' between a trusted group of people you know is preferable to 'location broadcasting', which would allow anyone on the social network to know where you are at a specific time. Openly sharing one's location with everyone can raise some real-life concerns, from the disclosure of sensitive information that you just wouldn't want some people to know (such as the church or night club you are frequenting becoming known to your future employer) to creating opportunities for stalking or breaking into someone's home when their posts suggest that it's unoccupied.

It is indeed possible that with the right mechanisms in place, such as advanced policies, codes and cryptography, location privacy can be preserved to a large extent. Location-based social networks such as Rally Up already recognise the need for privacy control and offer their users intuitive tools to configure their environment[5]. However, it is also up to users themselves to sit down and think what they want to be sharing with the world, making conscious decisions before openly broadcasting information. Simple things like using an avatar instead of a photo, a pseudonym instead of a real name or simply deciding to think twice before 'checking in'[6] at a specific location could potentially work for some people and help avoid facing unpleasant situations in the future.

Private information does not necessarily mean 'secret' information. It is still possible to publish private information successfully on public social networks, providing the content and audience are correctly assessed. As social media continue to evolve and their Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) start to communicate seamlessly with each other and interfaces become more transparent, offering more rewarding user experiences, the complexity begins to lie with the various sociological implications of our new social experiences. Ultimately, our own personal privacy sits right in the middle of all the new equations that are drawn, so it's worth acknowledging this very fact and starting to take it all just a little bit more seriously.


  1. Chris Peterson- LOSING FACE: AN ENVIRONMENTAL ANALYSIS OF PRIVACY ON FACEBOOK - January 2010 — Retrieved 12/04/2010
  2. Marshall Kirkpatrick - Why Facebook is Wrong: Privacy Is Still Important — Read Write Web — Retrieved 11/04/2010
  3. Andrew J. Blumberg and Peter Eckersley, - On Locational Privacy, and How to Avoid Losing it Forever — Electronic Frontier Foundation — Retrieved 13/04/2010
  4. Frederic Lardinois - PleaseRobMe and the Dangers of Location-Based Social Networks — Read Write Web — Retrieved 13/04/2010
  5. Frederic Lardinois - Rally Up: A Location-Based Social Network for Your Real Friends — Read Write Web — Retrieved 13/04/2010
  6. The concept of a check-in, popularized by location-based social media network FourSquare can be explained as follows: "[...] When you visit any of those locations, you "check in" on the FourSquare app, which broadcasts your location to your friends. You'll also see where your friends have checked in, which helps you meet up with them or find new things to do." Tanya Menoni - What is Foursquare? —

Further Reading:

  1. Steve Lohr - How Privacy Vanishes Online — The New York Times — January 2010
  2. Martin Bryant - 5 Facebook Privacy Settings You Should Check Right Now — The Next Web — March 2010
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