In the burgeoning digital social networking era, the oft-repeated assertion that “youth don’t care about privacy” has become a cliché.
I have always felt that this was an inaccurate representation. It creates the false dichotomy that somehow “older” people care more or are able to better manage their privacy online. A variation on this theme that is just as much fallacy is that “youth don’t care about privacy any more”.
At the recent 2010 International Conference of Data Protection & Privacy Commissioners in Jerusalem, I had the pleasure of listening to Danah Boyd speak on this topic among many others as she discussed the future of privacy. Danah is an American social media researcher and at the tender age of 33 has become one of the pre-eminent commentators on technology and social networking.
She is a tireless campaigner against the myth that youth don’t care about privacy and she argued the case much more eloquently that I ever could. It is worthwhile summarising her research here.
The fundamental point Danah makes is that it isn’t social norms that have changed – the youth of today are no more curious, open and expressive than they were, say, 30 years ago. Rather, there has been a radical shift in the technological structure, the online platform upon which communication is conducted.
Understanding this is the key to understanding the challenges of privacy in the social networking context.
Danah illustrates the difference by noting that (real-life) everyday interactions are private by default, public through effort. For example, it is harder to publicise something, to shout it out in the town square, than to tell an individual. Conversely, online interactions are public by default, private through effort. In many popular online forums there is no equivalent to a café where you can have a private conversation in a public place. When people participate online, often they don’t choose what they publicise, they choose what they can limit people to see.
So what is this new platform used for?
Danah’s second point is that for teenagers, the online world is a place where they can gather and interact, to see and be seen. In the same way that we at the conference were meeting and building ties, both personally and professionally, teenagers use Facebook and other social networking sites to do this.
According to Danah, when teens say they want privacy, they don’t mean totally locked down, one-to-one privacy. This defeats the purpose of participating in an online community – the end-goal is that they can share, not hide. Rather, they want what we take for granted when we gather in public places. They want the ability to socialise without every interaction being rendered persistent, searchable and easily spreadable.
Is this an unreasonable demand? I don’t think so.
This leads to her third point. There is a broad and deep interest in privacy which accompanies an interest in publicity. The two are not in opposition, and I agree. Privacy isn’t about hiding; it is about maintaining control and creating space to open up on one’s own terms.
However, with the growing complexity of privacy settings, the uncanny ways in which data is captured and, unfortunately, carelessness and incompetence on the part of users themselves, it is increasingly hard to share information on one’s own terms. The familiar refrain that “if you post personal information online, you don’t care about privacy” misses the point. People often do so unintentionally, mistakenly or through another’s deception.
One thing is clear, however. The younger generation does care about privacy. They are more sensitive to their personal information being available online and are more likely to take positive steps to address it.
In the span of a few short years social networking on the internet has become the platform for communication among the youth. In this new context, we have to move on from our old preconceptions of how to maintain privacy. Just because young people are much more public in the nature and extent of information they share online does not mean privacy is dead.
And it is about time those in power stop hiding behind that excuse and do something about it.