Thursday, May 27, 2010

Public v. Private: Pew Research and new Facebook settings

I have written about public v. private issues as they play out in social media in the past, and I have used exchanges with my seventeen-year-old daughter as an example.  She and I had another interesting exchange last night.

She is looking for a bathing suit for the upcoming summer, and she and her mother had a disappointing first try at finding something that a) fit and b) was inexpensive.  So my daughter went on Facebook with a request, asking people for advice about where she could find a bathing suit.  She even listed her price range.

At supper, we started discussing Facebook again (the family is pretty tolerant about these forays).  My daughter and I are not Facebook "friends" - she thinks it would be creepy.  That said, I told her that I saw the posting, and then I corrected her about her price range.  She blew up - "How did you see that?  That is so wrong!"

Of course, I took an inordinate amount of glee in this (what's the use in parenting if you can't tweak your teen-ager every once in a while?), but I couldn't explain to her why I could see this posting without being her "friend."  Is it because I might be a "friend of a friend?"  Then again, isn't everybody?

I think that Facebook's new privacy settings will make it easier to manage the level of privacy, but I doubt that our individual digital footprints will shrink.  Part of what makes Facebook so successful is the massive network (400 million worldwide), maintained on the back of people's personal information and data.  They won't slay the dragon that breathed fire (and $15 BILLION+) into the network.

(Even writing this post makes me a little uncomfortable, writing as I am about my daughter, my spouse.  I know that I can leave them unnamed here, but that that information is probably a search engine, a couple of search terms, and three clicks away for anyone who wants to track it down.  That is unnerving.)

I still maintain that young adults have a different notion of public and private, but that certainly doesn't mean that young adults somehow care less about these boundaries.  In fact, the Pew Internet and American Life Project's new report "Reputation Management and Social Media" (26 May 2010) provides evidence that young adults care deeply about these distinctions, and at least when it comes to social media like Facebook, they are more cautious about their digital footprint than older generations.

I like what  danah boyd wrote in her post "Pew Research Confirms that Youth Care about Their Reputation" (26 May 2010):
Of course, reputation and privacy always come back to audience. And audience is where we continuously misunderstand teenagers. They want to make sure that people they respect or admire think highly of them. But this doesn’t always mean that they care about how YOU think about them. So a teenager may be willing to sully their reputation as their parents see it if it gives them street cred that makes them cool amongst their peers. This is why reputation is so messy. There’s no universal reputation, no universal self-presentation. It’s always about audience.
As a writing instructor, I applaud boyd's observation, since it is true of ALL writing and speaking: audience is everything.  Often, when our communications fail to accomplish what we set out to do, it's because we have misjudged the audience's needs and expectations.

My daughter is "out there" with her friends, and when I see what my younger extended family members are making public on Facebook, some of them are even further "out there."  That said, none of them are especially pleased that an old fuddy-duddy like me can see their "stuff."  They think it is "sick" and "perverted."  My retort is that if I can see it, who else can see it?  "Inside conversations" on social media are rarely "inside":  it is more like having a conversation in a fish bowl or a cage at the zoo - people who wander by can stop and listen, stop and read, at their leisure.

Take a moment to look at the graphics below, courtesy of the "Reputation Management and Social Media" Pew report.   There's more where that came from.  If you are interested in how the different generations approach social media, this is a great report to read. 

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