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.