“Social Privacy”: Privacy as a social norm in a new form

Privacy is still a social norm – in one form or another – but for sure the way in which we administer our privacy in the open networks has transformed.  When we stop being able to control our privacy with “physical borders”, we start policing them with other forms of limits – social and cultural. Borders that are more invisible; tied up with shared values and social rules – but nonetheless relevant to be able to interpret and administer. This new container of privacy is emerging steadily alongside the development of the open networks.  Its more “silent” in the sense that if you need to understand how it works, you need to look at other things than e.g. people’s use of their “privacy settings” or whether they choose to be on Facebook or not. Because this is a different form of privacy administration that does not take point of departure in the actual architecture of the various services.

A few interesting studies have been looking at these new forms of administering privacy in the open networks online. Danah Boyds ethnographic studies of young people’s use of social media have e.g. provided some great insights into young people’s strategies to preserve their privacy online – primarily from their parents. See “Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens’ Attitudes, Practices, and Strategies”. This includes for example the “coding” of status updates so only the “invited” gets the point and “asserting social norms” in various ways through top friends lists etc.  She describes this as “boundary work” that is conducted in order to maintain what she refers to as “social privacy”.

Recent research (2013) on Twitter usage supports the idea that these forms of handling privacy are not only emerging, but already part of an established mode of interaction on Twitter. When analyzing millions of tweets, the people behind the research found that users very often include keywords tied up with the specific communities that they are interacting with pointing to “a pattern of behaviour that seems to contradict the commonly held belief that users simply want to share everything with everyone”. See data here ”Twitter users forming tribes with own language, tweet analysis shows” (The Guardian, March 2013)

This different way of containing privacy is not something policy-makers will use as their point of departure,  basically because it’s too difficult to grasp and measure.  But business developers are increasingly seeing the potential in developing services and applications that support a more networked form of privacy. And I think these services will actually be the most successful ones in the years to come. Wait and see.