danah boyd & Alice Marwick: Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens’ Attitudes, Practices, and Strategies

danah boyd & Alice Marwick: Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens’ Attitudes, Practices, and Strategies

Comment by: Priscilla Regan

PLSC 2011

Published version available here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1925128

Workshop draft abstract:

When 17-year-old Carmen broke up with her boyfriend, she wanted her friends to know that she was feeling sad.  Her initial instinct was to post sappy song lyrics to her Facebook, but she decided against doing so out of fear that her mother would think she was suicidal.  On Facebook, Carmen is friends with her mother and while her mother knew about the breakup, Carmen knew her mother had a tendency to overreact.  As a solution, she decided to post lyrics from “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”  Her geeky friends immediately recognized the song from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” and knew that the song was sung when the main character was about to be executed.  Her mother, on the other hand, did not realize that the words were a song lyric, let alone know the film reference.  She took the words literally and posted a comment on Carmen’s profile, noting that she seemed to be doing really well.  Her friends, knowing the full backstory, texted her.

The technique that Carmen takes can best be understood as “social steganography.” Steganography is an ancient tactic of hiding information in plain sight.  It’s the ultimate “security through obscurity.” Long before cryptography, the Greeks were notorious for using steganography – hiding messages in wax tablets, tattooing the heads of slaves and then sending them to their destination once their hair has grown back, etc. Steganography isn’t powerful because of strong encryption. It’s powerful because people don’t think to look for a hidden message. In a networked society, privacy isn’t going to be about controlling or limiting access. It’s going to be about controlling and limiting meaning.

As teens use sites like Facebook to socialize with peers, they struggle to manage diverse audiences simultaneously.  Facing collapsed contexts and social expectations, they are unable to segment their personal networks to maintain distinct social roles.  Instead, they use techniques like social stenography, limiting access to meaning instead of access to content. They use song lyrics, in-jokes, and external referents to encode messages that only have meaning to those “in the know.”  Their practices, while not new, allow teens to achieve privacy in public in new ways through social media.  Social stenography is just one of the techniques that teens take to manage privacy while living very public lives through social media.

This article will explore various techniques that teens take in order to examine the core practices of privacy in everyday life and the implications of emergent social norms on legal and technical discourse surrounding privacy. The argument leverages ethnographic data concerning American teen social media practices and situates the argument in a discussion of counterpublics (Warner 2002), symbols as subcultural signals (Chauncey 1995), civil inattention (Goffman 1959), and privacy as a contextual process (Gavison 1980; Nissenbaum 2009). The analysis then interrogates conflicts between people’s practices and both the design of technical systems and also the legal constructs for addressing privacy.  I will argue that the techniques that teens take to manage privacy are rooted in a model of “networked privacy” that doesn’t mesh well with the individual-centric nature of technological privacy settings or legal notions of harm.