Shifting Paradigms: Privacy and Meaning in an Emerging Age

Engaging in a public space has clearly measurable benefits. It is impossible to maintain a polity without interaction. Yet in every space where public engagement is possible, privacy concerns abound. This is true in every setting, but in the rapidly expanding world of online interaction; technology is collapsing context making it difficult for users to distinguish one audience from another. These changes necessitate a new understanding of privacy; one more attuned to context, meaning, and questions of agency.

We wrote in our inaugural newsletter about the legal changes we see coming to web site privacy policies. Today we are stepping back to take advantage of a bird’s-eye-view of modern privacy. We will be using recent studies into teen social media practices as a background for this discussion, in part because today’s teens are tomorrow’s leaders, and because The Pew Research Center recently released a report putting hard numbers behind what many of us have known for some time – that privacy is evolving.

Reimagining online privacy

Privacy has many different meanings, each a component of the context in which it is expressed. For example under a long-running line of Supreme Court jurisprudence, privacy rests in the intersection of personal expectation and public acknowledgement; a space largely defined by physical boundaries. Under this interpretation, the home is sacrosanct, the hub of the personal, acceptably walled off from public view; inviolate by social fiat. However, to a teen finishing her final year of high-school under her parent’s roof, to the homeless veteran sleeping on park benches, to the nomadic agricultural worker helping to fill our nation’s breadbaskets three months out of each year, or to a Federal prisoner serving a lifetime sentence, home may be one of the most violated spaces imaginable.

Alternatively, privacy might be defined by ideas, not spaces. Our personal feelings and thoughts are sometimes our most prized private concepts. But here again, these ideas are frequently shared with others, sometimes unknown others. For ages writers have filled countless pages with their most “private” thoughts, fully intending their works to be consumed by the public at large. This has only accelerated with the advent of online public spaces, social networking, in which traditionally private – even intimate – moments are shared with abandon.

What these examples make clear is that privacy cannot be universally defined in terms of either physical space or information. In fact, research is suggesting that privacy isn’t even about the actual information in question; the attributes that define who we are. Instead, privacy is – and perhaps always has been – about control; agency. Privacy is the power, or right, to dictate how our characteristics are used or consumed; freedom from unwanted scrutiny rather than off-the-grid-anonymity.

A question of agency

While most of you probably don’t deal directly with the special privacy considerations implicit in teen web use, the analogies between teen experiences and adult expectations are simply too apt to ignore. In a seminal paper on teen social media use and privacy expectations, researchers Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick describe the frustration many teenagers express at the dichotomous response adults exhibit towards online privacy.

Aghast at the depth of “private” information teens are willing to share online, parents, schools, and law enforcement respond by closely monitoring teen social profiles in a typically well-meaning effort to keep kids safe; both from themselves and from the raging moral crisis euphemistically termed “stranger danger”. However, in so doing, caretakers ironically violate the very privacy they wish teens took more seriously. Incredulous at teen complaints about this invasion of privacy, caretakers too often retort that the information was available to the public, thus negating any expectation of privacy.

But as we discussed above, this argument does not comport with the reality of what privacy actually means to us as individuals. For many teens, the public nature of a Facebook profile isn’t the controlling consideration, the intended audience is; thereby establishing an expectation of privacy adults often unintentionally violate. Furthermore, parental monitoring of social media accounts can be directly compared to similar efforts by employers to monitor employee social networking. In this latter case, legislators are frantically scrambling to impose legal boundaries around employer behavior. No one, it seems, notices the oddities of this dual approach.
In the interim, teens are told that their attempts to develop social norms around their own version of privacy are invalid. Unable to influence their surroundings, teens and young adults turn to obfuscation. And from their explorative behavior comes a privacy model with the potential to upend the world of information.

Meaning and context

When privacy is defined as a person’s ability to avoid scrutiny, the capacity to be left alone at will, than meaning and context take center stage. An age old security technique called steganography is being increasingly employed by teens – and almost certainly web savvy adults – to gain privacy through obscurity. Steganography refers to the practice of hiding something valuable in plain sight where it will be secure by virtue of being unknown. In an ancient Greek legend, a message was tattooed onto the head of a runner whose hair was then allowed to grow out, completely hiding the message. While in no way hard to intercept, this message was secured by virtue of knowledge.

Social media users do this all the time, with the practice increasingly prevalent among teens who have more to hide from the judgment of their parents than they do from the world at large. There are two primary vehicles for hiding meaning in plain sight on a social network.

The first involves the use of social context as a sort of password to meaning. For example a post might exclaim simply “I got it!” To most of the poster’s friends, these three words convey almost nothing. To a select few however, people who are close with the poster and understand the context, those same three words might convey the exciting news that the poster just landed a new job, hooked up with the prom-queen, earned a coveted “A” in geometry, or landed a spot on the school’s track team. To the right people, messages like these convey a great deal. However, a key is needed to unlock their full meaning.

The second method involves the dissemination of partial information with the goal of triggering a more in-depth – and ostensibly more secure – conversation in a different setting. Here a person might post “NO!” without explanation. Most viewers will not understand, but people close to the poster will be curious enough to seek out more information, perhaps by sending a text or talking the next day in class. In this way, an individual can reach out to their social network without worrying about revealing private details to people for whom the message is not intended. To “outsiders” the poster maintains plausible deniability, easily covering the real meaning with any number of “explanations” which can be handed out to people the poster does not want to make privy to the real story.

Interestingly, this later technique, replete with a plausible cover story, is being increasingly employed by adults with something to hide. A recent case in which a court ordered a suspect to provide the decryption key to an encoded laptop hard drive further demonstrates the inherent flaws in direct attempts at traditional privacy. Truly private data can only be hidden under dual layers of encryption, with contextual meaning, not a firm password, as the real key to the data. As with teen social media, context and meaning proved much more substantive privacy than any specific technical efforts.

While the strategies vary, the concept of social context can be used to control meaning in all three settings. In this way, privacy is controlled irrespective of software tools, friend lists, passwords, or outside surveillance. The evolution of these types of strategies is driving a paradigm shift in the way people think about, and manage, their privacy.

Default attributes

Traditionally, the default attribute of a piece of information was its privacy. Increasingly this paradigm is being upended. Where once private information was published only if purposely selected for dissemination, emerging trends among teen users show the precise opposite. The growing assumption among teen social media users is that everything about them is public by default, with privacy created only on a case-by-case basis. For example, an Instagram user might post all the photos in her phone at the end of the day, later deleting any about which a friend complains. Choices about privacy now focus on what to withhold, rather than what to post. Under this paradigm, the overload of static information is of little use to unintended audiences – context provides the only real meaning to the information.

Analogue slippage

A big part of this change in the base-state of information comes from the growing realization that maintaining strict privacy controls is extremely difficult if not impossible. Despite various attempts by software developers like Facebook to create management tools designed to protect private information, things leak out at a disturbing rate. Everyone knows a story about an embarrassing information accident; the post that went to the wrong friend, or the comment that was accidently visible to a friend of a friend.

These troupes are nothing new. Such stories have circulated for years, adapting to changing technologies; where once it was an email that went to the wife instead of the lover, today it’s the husband who discovers his partner’s double Facebook identity. Even when technology works as expected, analogue interceptions are possible. For teens this is particularly troublesome. Parents often physically monitor social media activity; you never know when your friend’s mom is standing over his shoulder reading your ostensibly private communications. The same can easily happen in adult settings where phones are lost or misplaced, laptops left open in the coffee shop, and spouses or business partners overhear snippets of private phone conversations.

Adapting social norms

These types of information leaks are not unique to online settings. Sociologists have long recognized that people in busy public spaces such as restaurants or elevators will go out of their way to ignore extraneous information simply out of respect. Social expectations dictate that you do not stare at a couple talking sweetly at the next table, or interject into a cell-phone conversation taking place on your way up the stairs at work. These gifts of privacy are at the heart of our social spaces and they are beginning to migrate online.

Teens increasingly indicate that despite the open access social networks provide to the details of their lives, they still maintain an expectation of privacy. While caretakers and other adults are not always willing to recognize these expectations as legitimate, they are nevertheless likely to become the social norm within the next decade.

Setting does matter. Many users expect groups of friends to ignore posts directed at a different circle of people. Most of you have probably experienced this effect. You know that inserting your thoughts into the comments of certain posts will be seen as rude or offensive. You probably skip over these posts by instinct as you scroll your feed. These are the same behaviors humans have exhibited for centuries in traditional spaces and it is hardly surprising that they would make their way into our virtual encounters.

The take away

By understanding the emerging privacy expectations held by teen and young adult social media users, we can begin to approximate a picture of the future; a future in which everyone implicitly realizes that information is public, but where most of us respect each other’s boundaries out of common decency. There will still need to be laws, just like there are today, that govern extreme cases; there will always be individuals who break the social norms for their own reasons, but trends are changing.

No longer can we pretend that the things we post about ourselves, or indeed anything at all about ourselves, remains anonymous and unknown to the world. Recognizing the benefits we gain from social interaction in a digital world and understanding how to appropriately navigate that world is more likely to protect the things that are really important to us than are any attempts to enforce dead paradigms on an emerging age.


Kjeld Lindsted Kjeld Lindsted
Content Architecture, Copywriting, and Editing
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