August 4, 2010

Students: Panic Over Online Privacy, Identity is Overblown

Category: Digital Citizenship
facebook homepage reflected in sunglasses

Blogger Chris Sinclair attends the University of California, Irvine, and brings a youth perspective to DMLcentral.

Going on the Internet and reading blogs these days I feel like all I see are warnings about the evils of online networking, fleshing out a plethora of controversies involving social media sites. I find many of these articles boring and somewhat repetitive in their chastisement of Facebook and other sites and the Internet in general for suddenly making all of our “private” information “available.” How is this information “private” if a person has willingly made it public to a huge audience?

While there are some cases where I think we should be concerned (such as giving minors online access with adequate monitoring), I cannot help but place the responsibility on the end user. This is based on my personal experience. My first Hotmail account, the one I used as a teenager to sign up for every forum and subscription appealing to me on the Internet at the time, is today filled with spam. Trust me when I say I have learned to give out as little information as possible whenever possible.

While there have been times where I have displayed more information than I probably should have on sites like Facebook, I now have all my privacy settings and previous sites (Xangas, Myspaces, etc etc) locked down or deleted. In the beginning, I did go through the sort of paranoia that “someone” out there on the Internet could steal my precious “private” information. However, I came to believe that while this was definitely possible, it was highly improbable. Why would anyone want my personal information in the first place? I had not made any enemies, nor did I plan to in the near future, and I had no evidence of criminal activities on any of my sites. Yes, there were pictures of me consuming alcohol, laughing too hard, and perhaps even one de-tagged image buried deep on a friend’s Facebook album of me, years ago, losing it in a sink. But would anyone, even a future employer, actually take the time to search for any of this? I sort of doubt it.

With all of the drama and hype about youth and privacy and online peril, I decided to talk to a variety of friends and peers here at my university in Southern California, UC Irvine, to see what they think. I got a variety of different responses. Most (almost all) said they had privacy settings set exactly the way they wanted them, keeping most of their information only visible to “friends.” This ensured they would have no problem with employers. I went ahead and interviewed a few strangers outside of a local coffee shop next to campus, and their responses can be seen in the video below:

I was surprised by the many differing viewpoints – by the concerns of some that information would be used by advertising companies or other, more malicious entities. Many sided with me, believing as if nothing posted on the Internet about them was really that shameful. Others strongly opposed corporate data mining. I found that most students didn’t care if Facebook or other social networking sites used their information for statistical purposes. They didn’t want their private information to be stolen or shared online without their knowledge, but “statistical” use was ok. The resounding conclusion from my interviews was that most students my age think one of two things: either they have not put incriminating information on the Internet. Or, if they have done so, they do not think anyone will care enough to find it. As an interesting side note: while many people told me they were scared of employers and others googling their real name, my name is much too common to threaten my “reputation” (there are a million Sinclairs out there!). However, if someone googled my “pen name,” my avatar, or username, page upon page would come up. Thankfully, none of this information is connected with my real self, or at least not easily connected.

From my perspective, there has been a roller-coaster effect with macro social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. Both are or were insanely popular in the beginning. Then, with Myspace we saw a wave of popularity crash when the site became bogged down with plugins, fake profiles, and users fleeing to other social networks. Facebook, while still in the “up” phase, seems to be headed down a similar trajectory. Applications are flying around everywhere, many of which require access to your “personal” information, and now the user base is so broad it encompasses most age groups and social spheres.

I remember when I first joined Facebook. I had just received my .edu email address, and it allowed me to communicate with all of my older friends already off at college. Now, however, looking at my friend’s list, I find that there is a stunningly small number of people I really want to talk to. The novelty seemed to wear off; I cannot help but believe that Facebook will soon fall victim to another large social site (Orkut, perhaps?). To test my theory that social networks are more a temporary phenomena than a permanent means of new form of communication being embraced by my generation, I interviewed several more students, this time mainly focusing on whether social networking sites will grow in and out of style:

Most of the students interviewed have had Facebook accounts and other social network pages for many years. In fact, most of the students I talked to represent a group that (like myself) was attracted to Facebook originally because of its ease of use, simplicity, and special private status (college students only). The general consensus was that while Facebook was, or is, still the king of macro social networks, students would switch to something different if the opportunity presented itself. For my part, I hope that someone will create a robust social networking system that will improve upon what Facebook originally had hoped to achieve: a sense of exclusivity. I believe a sort of hybrid online profile will be the wave of the future where there are different settings for different spheres in a person’s life. For example, an area dedicated to family and relatives could automatically default to show all of your most private information: Phone number, address, etc etc.

In a separate, more public sphere designed for networking with peers and friends, information would be more tightly controlled. A user could have a third profile designed for professional use (similar to LinkedIn, a site many students praised). This profile would likely be the most restrictive, allowing a person to represent themselves professionally without giving access to every aspect of their lives. In my view, the privacy settings Facebook and other sites use need to be more intuitive and simpler. Just as a person represents himself or herself differently in situations in the real world, our online personas need to have the same flexibility. That said, each of us is responsible for our own image projection, regardless of what social networking sites decide to do or not.

Header image credit: escapedtowisconsin