Modern-Day Privacy

Facebook has been accused of violating the privacy of its users over and over again and the amount of private data that Facebook is harvesting is enormous. A fact that has been proven by Law-student Max Schrems when Facebook surprisingly met his request and send him a hardcopy of all the data they ever collected of him. The result was 1,222 PDF files containing all sorts of personal information like status updates, likes, relationships and photo’s, even those who he thought he had deleted.

The question that comes to my mind is: what can be understood as privacy in the age of social media? Privacy is one of those concepts that is hard to grasp, ever changing and highly subjective. The private/public dichotomy that underlies the concept of privacy understands information that has been exposed to others as public. The problem is that users tend to perceive Facebook as a quasi-private environment; a safe home, a notion that is of course encouraged by Facebook itself in order to win its users trust and keep them revealing personal information on the site.

Daniel Solove explains very well why our traditional black and white / all or nothing sense of privacy doesn’t fit our current era of social technologies:

“Privacy is a complicated set of norms, expectations, and desires that goes far beyond the simplistic notion that if you’re in public, you have no privacy. (…) We often don’t want absolute secrecy. Instead, we want to control how our information is used, to whom it is revealed, and how it is spread.”

I agree with the relationship that Solove points out between privacy and the amount of control a user has over the visibility and accessibility of information. Well known social media theorist Clay Shirky also claims that “privacy is a way of managing information flow” and the notion of filter failure underlies privacy issues on social media platforms.

The problem with this point of view is that it may implicitly argue that the solution of privacy violation lies in (more) technical controls, which according to James Grimmelmann are ineffective and incompatible with “the social dynamics of privacy”.

Another interesting point that Grimmelmann makes is that besides passing on personal information to third parties, most privacy violations are peer-to-peer as a result of the technical design that is based on the core social philosophy of Facebook: sharing information.

“The dark side of a peer-to-peer individual-empowering ecology is that it empowers individuals to spread information about each other. These are not concerns about powerful entities looking down on the network from above; they’re concerns about individuals looking at each other from ground level.”

Although most social media users seem to accept a loss in privacy when it comes to the distribution of personal data for commercial and marketing interests, they aren’t as willing to compromise privacy when it comes to peer-to-peer information flow. Users don’t want their mother or employee to come across a drunken picture of them celebrating a Friday’s night out because their friend decided it would be ‘cool’ to publish it on Facebook AND tag your name without notice. Likewise they don’t want their broken heart broadcasted on Facebook’s newsfeed for ‘the whole world’ to read after their ex-lover changed his/her relationship status into single after a horrible break-up.

Jonathon Berlin illustrated on his blog how the up’s and down’s of a relationship are documented and can be turned into a modern day love story with the help of Facebook’s News Feed. Strange but true.

Another contradicting but interesting research concludes that users are somewhat indifferent towards privacy risks and seem to take certain privacy costs for granted as a result of social motives that drive the use of social media.

While it is likely that the difficulty of controlling privacy settings and the users’ level of media literacy play an important role, this result furthermore indicates that one’s attitude towards privacy has indeed shifted and is perhaps unique when it comes to social media. By acknowledging the unique character and boundaries of privacy on social media sites like Facebook, we can begin to ask ourselves how we can design these sites so that privacy works the way we want it to work.


Debatin, Bernhard, Jennette P. Lovejoy1, Ann-Kathrin Horn, Brittany Hughes. 2009. Facebook and Online Privacy: Attitudes, Behaviors, and Unintended Consequences. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 15(1): 83-108.

Solove, Daniel. 2007. The Future of Reputation. Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet. United States of America: Vail-Ballou Press.

Grimmelmann, James. 2009. Saving Facebook. Iowa Law Review. Vol. 94: 1137-1206.