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Managing Privacy and Context Collapse in the Facebook Age


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The growth of social media—online sites driven by the public sharing on personal information with a wide audience—raises new questions related to how individuals manage their privacy and self-presentation. The technical features of sites such as Facebook, Google Plus, and Twitter lower the transaction costs of connecting and interacting with a large and diverse audience. At the same time, they may raise the costs of managing self-presentation across different contexts and ensuring that private information is not shared with unintended audiences.

Discussions related to self-presentation and privacy have featured prominently in the social sciences for more than half a century. For example, Goffman (1959) argued that individuals’ self-presentation varies based on the audience for whom they are performing. Likewise, Altman (1975) viewed privacy not as a static process, but one of dynamic boundary regulation, in which individuals make decisions regarding which pieces of personal information to share with whom, as well as the context in which that information is disclosed.

In online social networking communities, additional social and technical features make the process of managing privacy and self-presentation more complicated. Unlike anonymous forums, where users can create virtual identities not connected to their “real” selves, SNSs are tied to real identities, and because users often share a significant amount of personal information through these sites (Nosko et al., 2010), privacy becomes a critical element to determining both who to connect with and what to disclose. Boyd (2008) characterizes SNSs as
“networked publics,” and describes three features that differentiate them from other publics: invisible audiences, context collapse, and the blurring of public and private. Each of these factors is critical in evaluating how individuals can regulate boundaries and get the most out of their use of these sites.

Context collapse—the flattening of multiple distinct audiences into a homogeneous group—offers benefits and barriers to individuals. The average American adult has 229 Facebook “friends” (Hampton et al., 2011) who comprise a variety of personal and professional contexts. While Facebook enables users to quickly diffuse information across their entire network, communicating with such a diverse set of others through the same channel (e.g., status updates) may become problematic when it prevents individuals from varying their self-presentation for different audiences or when their full audience is unclear.

When facing these challenges, individuals have a number of options. Bernie Hogan (2010) suggests that users employ a “lowest common denominator” approach, whereby only content appropriate for all audiences is shared on the site. On the other hand, users may employ advanced privacy settings to segregate audiences, so they can still share relevant content with their various connections.

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Managing Privacy and Context Collapse in the Facebook Age

  1. 1. Protecting Face:Managing Privacy and ContextCollapse in the Facebook AgeJessica Vitak (@jvitak)PhD Candidate, Michigan State UniversityAssistant Professor, University of Maryland iSchool (August 2012) 1Theorizing the Web | April 14, 2012 | College Park, MD
  2. 2. How are Facebook users managing context collapseand interacting with a diverse set of friends? 2
  3. 3. What is context collapse?• We present different versions of the self depending on our audience• Could include: • Style of dress • Speech Ego • Non-verbals• Context collapse occurs when we “perform” for different audiences at same time 3 • e.g., weddings
  4. 4. Context Collapse on Facebook 4
  5. 5. How context collapse mightimpact Facebook use1) Strength of weak ties (Granovetter, 1973): users distribute content (esp. resource requests) to entire network to increase likelihood that someone will see it and respond.2) Privacy settings: users employ increasingly granular privacy settings to segment network into different audiences3) Lowest common denominator (Hogan, 2010): users only distribute content appropriate for all “friends.” 5
  6. 6. Privacy Online Privacy: “selective control of access to the self,” achieved by regulating social interactions (Altman, 1975) Multiple Stalkers Accounts ID Theft Friends Restricting Private Only Searchability ContentEmployers Privacy Places / Privacy Friend Check-ins Lists Concerns Settings Visibility Hacked Limit of Content Account Restricting Old Inappropriate Tagging Posts Limited 6 Content Profile
  7. 7. Communications Privacy Management Theory (Petronio, 2002)• Relationships managed by balancing privacy and disclosures Privacy (Concealing) Disclosures (Revealing)• Privacy and disclosures function in “incompatible” ways• We create boundaries to Collective Boundary Person A’s Person B’s demarcate both private and Personal Personal Boundary Boundary shared information 7
  8. 8. Boundary Management on Facebook• Default settings emphasize revealing, not concealing• Networks are increasingly large and diverse• Most users maintain very permeable boundaries to personal information and shared contentStrategies for controlling access to private information: • Privacy Settings • Controlling Friend Requests/Defriending • Removing Content/Untagging • Not sharing content (lowest common denominator; 8 deactivating)
  9. 9. Study & Analysis (Vitak, in preparation)• Survey participants (see Vitak, 2012) volunteered for follow-up study• Selection criteria: Use of Facebook’s advanced privacy settings/multiple accounts• Interviews • 26 participants; length: 30-94 minutes • Primary topic: Boundary management strategies• Analysis • Interviews transcribed, proofed, uploaded into Dedoose • Analyzed using textual microanalysis (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) 9
  10. 10. Findings: Friending/Defriending• 24 participants (92%) set profile to Friends Only• Most users reported a lot of Facebook Friends… • M = 500, Median = 433, SD = 361, range: 62 – 1600• …and many were weak ties • 8% fell within circles with most overlap, 2nd 52% in circles with least overlap Tier Weak Ties 3rd• Most users (73%) described defriending Tier practices to manage network • Many performed “friend purges” • Hesitation/concern for hurting people’s feelings • Hiding was an alternative practice to defriending 10
  11. 11. Findings: Segregating Audiences• 20 participants (77%) actively used Lists to restrict access to content to specific groups of Friends. • Maintaining power dynamics • Blocking family • Restricting content to close friends & family • Private Messages or Notes visible to small group of Friends• 57% of Twitter users kept multiple accounts • Usually divided based on personal/professional identities 11
  12. 12. Findings: Lowest Common Denominator • Even with heavy use of privacy settings, most users reported censoring posts • Focus on positive updates • Easier to not post than negotiate boundaries • Simplifying posts to make them more widely appealing • Privacy concerns • Conscious thought process about audience before posting: • Who will see this post? • How might it be misinterpreted? 12 • Will people find this post interesting/funny/worthwhile/etc.?
  13. 13. Implications• Among those highly engaged in impression management online, concealing often outweighs revealing • Contrary to Zukerberg’s “new social norm” argument• If true, this impacts: • Opportunities for social capital transactions • Relationship maintenance …but what about disconnecting completely? 13
  14. 14. Logging OffArguments For: Arguments Against: • “Addiction” concerns • Relationship maintenance • More meaningful interactions • Missing out • Less distractions • Networking • More productivity • New connections • Work/Life Balance • Social capital exchanges • Context Collapse • Information retrieval 14
  15. 15. Tools to Help You Log Off “Productivity through disconnection” “Turn off your friends…” 15* Fred Stutzman, the creator of these apps, is a rock star.
  16. 16. Thanks! Contact: Twitter: @jvitak Website:* Paper referenced in study: 16Vitak, J. (2012, May). The impact of context collapse and privacy on social network site disclosures. Paper to bepresented at the International Communication Association 62nd Annual Conference, Phoenix, AZ. (Also currentlyunder review at a Communication Journal)