Monday, April 12, 2010

Facebook and the Problem of Collapsed Identity

Privacy controls in social networking sites seems to be endlessly discussed. Facebook seems to regularly tinker with its user privacy controls and many users routinely ignore them.

One thing that I feel is missed in privacy discussions is that it is not a binary conception - either I’ll keep things just to me, my friends or network or I’ll share it. Such decisions are a foundational privacy issue. However, the information I want to share is often more complicated. It’s not a question of whether a user is an online recluse or virtual exhibitionist.

There are some types of information that is suitable to share in some contexts and with some types of people and then not with others. The Internet collapses barriers that otherwise kept various aspects of our identity separate. There used to be a clear distinction between work, home, political or religious spaces, etc. These barriers are being further collapsed online as Facebook increasingly becomes the defacto platform for all online social networking. Almost everyone I know is on Facebook - from my young and old relatives, work colleagues, old school friends, casual acquaintances, etc.

The benefits of sites like Facebook are that everyone is using it (critical mass) but the problem is that everyone is using it. Problems have been found with this particularly when work and social life collide online (e.g. cases of employees fired for criticizing employers, prospective employers not hiring due to seeing drunken photos, parents learning TMI about their kids’ leisure activities).

I love the term participatory surveillance as it encompasses the desire many of us have to share our personal details, stories, images, and mundane status updates online. The accompanying term should be induced voyeurism, as it is hard to not take note as this parade of info passes by on our social networks sites. But just because someone wants to share information, doesn’t mean they want to share it with everyone they know (and don’t know) online and have friended.

Facebook is gradually improving its privacy controls, but they haven’t made much progress on allowing users to segment the various dimensions of their identity. I have made groups in Facebooks for my friends based on whether I know them from work, school, family, professional associations, or are essentially strangers (friended as they share similar interests or friends). Other than restricting the photographs I upload based on these groups, there is little else I can do to recontextualize the various elements of my social life.

Could website features or user norms mitigate collapsed identities? Could any such features be sufficiently usable so users actually use them? Already privacy controls are often seldom used, would this just be further distractions?

The rich context available offline and spatial barriers preserved distinct identities. This will be difficult to replicate online, so from a longitude perspective will user behaviour adapt. Will collapsed identities become the norm?

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