Privacy Through Obscurity

There were lots of smart people wandering around during SXSW, but probably few as smart as Danah Boyd, Social Media Researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, who blew minds with her opening keynote. The title of her presentation, “Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity,” seemed pretty straightforward, but she took several recent examples to expose the tricky and shifting nature of what those concepts mean on the web, and in particular, the social web.

Boyd defined privacy as “one’s control over how information flows.” Even though someone may choose to share personal information through specific online channels, therefore making it public, people still expect an element of privacy through the sheer obscurity of that information when compared to the social web as a whole. Their sense of privacy is rooted in their ability to control what information lives where and who is allowed to easily access it.

Social network users are alarmed when platforms attempt to aggregate additional data (such as Google Buzz) or break down barriers to that data (such as Facebook’s ever increasing attempts to persuade users out of their preferred privacy settings). It is not just the technicalities that upset users, but “non-technical mistakes that disrupt societal expectations,” according to Boyd. For example, the very fact that Google chose to place Buzz, a very public, social interaction tool, within email, a very private, personal platform, shattered users expectations of what Google was providing them. According to Boyd, she encountered several users who believed that because they had signed up, often unintentionally, for the service that their email was now exposed to anyone on their followers list. The mash-up of public and private had immediate ramifications for Google and changed the way their customers viewed them.

A second component to this delicate balancing act of private and public on the web is what is at stake for privileged vs. unprivileged users. While celebrities, or even higher level management, may feel comfortable exposing themselves on the web, it is often because they have less to lose. Their reputations are more easily managed and less affected by the minor social web scuffs that leave the unprivileged in the unemployment line. Unprivileged users must often deter their participation in the social web, or at least alter their web persona, to keep their jobs or even maintain their chances of getting into that top notch university.

Boyd has a fantastic talent for taking the straightforward, adding a layer of complexity, and then making it digestible for the average digital citizen. I hope I was able to convey a portion of her mind-blowing smarts in this “better late than never” debrief. A full transcript of her talk can be found here.

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