Users’ Perceptions of Privacy Rights on Facebook

In lieu of class this week, we are to discuss our ongoing research projects, the first draft of which will be due in a week (yikes!!).  My project started off as a theoretically based paper on applying the Fourth Amendment, the Electronic Communications Protection Act (ECPA), and some specific court cases (e.g. Katz v. US) to social media privacy issues.  However, I recently (very recently), decided to alter the course of my project and include an online survey asking Facebook users what they think about their online privacy rights.  Specifically, I want to find out what Facebook users know about the consequences of clicking that “Sign Up” button and if having this information would make them think twice about keeping their Facebook account.


Sneaky, sneaky Facebook

I don’t want to give too many more details because I intend to beg anyone reading this to take my survey, and bias is an unfortunate thing in research.   So instead, I want to briefly discuss the idea that spawned my interest in this project — so much interest, in fact, that the desire to write this paper is why I took this Social Internet class.

It all began with a phone booth.

phone booth

Here we see the proud phone booth in its natural habitat, which has been destroyed in later years by the emergence of a more dominant creature, the cellularus phonus.

How does this now-extinct glass box relate to modern technology? Well, the United States Supreme Court ruled that if it was private enough for Superman to use as a changing room, then it was private enough to protect a bookie’s phone conversation.  … Or something like that.

In actuality, the story goes that some feds planted a bug on the inside wall of the phone booth a local bookie used to make and take bets in order to catch him in the act.  The bookie, by the name of Katz, was caught red-handed and sentenced to jail time.  On appeal, however, the highest court in the country ruled that, because Katz had closed the door to the phone booth, he had a reasonable expectation of privacy inside its walls, thereby making the bug illegal and Katz’s conviction unlawful.

For me, this ruling begged the question: does taking steps to ensure your privacy give you a reasonable expectation of it, regardless of how public the domain?  Specifically, does enabling your privacy settings on Facebook to exclude everyone but a small group of people equate to a reasonable expectation of privacy?

I thought it was an intriguing concept and wanted to explore it further.  I actually have found an answer to that last question, but why give away spoilers?  I will be presenting my findings in class, and I will follow up with a blog once the project is done.  So, stay tuned — and in the meantime, you can take my survey*! 🙂


*The survey has been closed.

Strong Ties & Privacy

*Note: This post is brought to you by hot tea and cold meds.  Please excuse the possible (ahem, likely) incoherency.

my bubble

In class on Monday, our professor said something I found very interesting: Exclusively maintaining strong ties negates a need for privacy.

To explain this, I should probably give a little bit of background info for my non-class readers.  For those of you who were already privy to this lecture, feel free to skip the next paragraph.

Quick review:  Strong ties are the relationships you have with friends; weak ties are the relationships you have with acquaintances.  Granovetter explains in his Strength of Weak Ties that it is actually the weak ties — the relationships you have with people outside of your group of friends — that build cognition and expand perception.  This is because we typically befriend those who are very similar to ourselves.  Therefore, relying solely on our friends for intellectual stimulation would lead to a narrowed viewpoint and lack of cognitive growth; without new ideas to challenge us, our minds could never develop outside of the small box we construct around it.

As everyone is now on the same page, let me return to my original topic, strong ties and privacy.  If we all lived in our own small world with just our closest group of friends and family, then do we still require privacy?  I wouldn’t mind my best friend seeing me when I’m sick and pitiful in my pajamas and crazy hair day (completely unrelated example, I swear), but I would not necessarily want to share that image with a near-stranger because ew.  This concept brings to mind a discussion I once had with a friend.  As I honestly can’t remember which friend, I’m going to just call her…  Mallory.  I don’t actually know anyone named Mallory, so that will work nicely.  Anyway, Mallory was telling me about how she was getting ready to go out with her husband and best friend one night, and both of them were waiting for her in the living room.  Mallory, in the process of getting dressed, walked out of her bedroom to say something to her friend.  Her husband, however, did not appreciate the fact that Mallory was only half-dressed at the time.  Mallory didn’t understand his irritation.  Both her husband and her female best friend had seen her at various stages of getting dressed — what was the big deal?  Apparently, her husband felt that it was weird for both he and Mallory’s friend to see that much of her at the same time.

I thought the story was quite interesting.  The concept of privacy is almost like a bubble that surrounds a person.  Every so often, someone else is allowed into this bubble.  However, if all the people with whom we are close were allowed into the bubble at the same time, how would the dynamic change?  For one thing, this is sounding dangerously close to a cult-like situation.  For another, though, what are the true implications for sharing private matters with more than one person at a time?  Like in the above example with Mallory.  Sharing what he thought of as a personal matter (aka his wife’s state of undress) with her best friend made Mallory’s husband uncomfortable.  For Mallory’s husband, there were too many people in Mallory’s privacy bubble at the same time.

In the case of social media, any number of people are invited into our own little privacy bubble at any given time, if available privacy settings are in use.  We choose a certain population to be privy to our thoughts, our faults, our actions and travels, and our friendships, along with a multitude of other things.  All of these people are taking up residence in our bubble, and we are sharing our “private” selves with them simultaneously.  Now, consider that our Facebook friends include acquaintances on the outskirts of our lives and not just our closest friends.  But what if our Facebook friends list did include only those with whom we were closest?  Would we care if we exposed ourselves (figuratively) to a group of our closest friends/family?  Would we care if they all saw us at our most vulnerable at the same time?  Would we all become exhibitionists within our own bubbles, flouncing around half-dressed and carrying on conversations with our husbands and best friends simultaneously?  Have I had too much Nyquil?  Likely.