The announcement that 6 candidates in the current Canadian federal election have had to resign from the race due to network documented “indiscretions” gives one thought about the potentially haunting effects of web exposure. Now, most of us have enough sense not to release videos of us lighting up 30 joints at a time (no, I didn’t make that up!), but how do we know that everything we expose on the Net will continue to be an asset, rather than an embarrassing liability in future times. I had a related experience this week when a student from a past course asked me why her picture is still accessible on an Athabasca elgg powered social software site, a year after the course ended. In this case, it was because, she had not deleted the picture, a function taken care of by most LMS when they ruthlessly destroy (or least make hidden) all data at course end, and moreover, never expose such data to the ‘outside world’.
Part of the rationale for exposing oneself on networks is to allow connection to others and to external ideas. This enhances the benefits of weak links and builds social capital. However, it also increases public exposure. I was interested to hear that the tactics employed by reputation firms when clients are attacked on the Net, is not to attempt the impossible task of wiping away all negative comments. Rather the most practical solution is to create a very visible and positive net presence, make multiple hits and links to these positive comments, and wait until the offending and offensive comments slide to the bottom of search engine windows.
In my own class, I am encouraging students to venture out beyond the protected walls of the institutional LMS and use blog posting and discussions to create “transactional presence” and sustain cooperative and collaborative learning. However, I note that most students confine reading permissions to others associated with the University or even exclusively to class mates, thereby eliminating exposure to search engines and external readers and communities. A safer, choice, but one that serves to minimize spontaneous and emergent connections and relationships with people outside of the institution.
These examples illustrate that the net forces a profound re thinking of privacy and public identity. Privacy issues have been of interest since prehistoric times when we began sharing our caves with others. The advent of both mass and personal communications has served only to speed up and magnify these concerns. In his ground breaking work Altman (1976) notes the interest in privacy from many discipline perspectives and by citizens, social institutions and governments. He lists ways in which privacy is defined and understood. To some privacy revolves about exclusion, avoidance of others and the keeping of certain types of knowledge away from others. A second definition focuses on control – on an individual’s ability to open and close themselves to others and for the freedom to decide what aspects of themselves are made accessible to others. Paradoxically privacy is not defined merely by the presence or absence of others as is implied in the sense of being anonymous or “lost in the crowd” Of course on the Net ‘the crowd’ is infinitely larger, but not quite as easy to get lost in. Likewise, privacy is not valued in and of itself. An ultimately private life might look like a life sentence to solitary confinement or to be shipwrecked on a desert island. Finally, privacy is not static, each of us has moments when we desire both more and less of the presence of others and similarly there are times when we want to share more (and less) of our selves and our ideas.
Thus, Altman’s second definition with its focus on privacy as choice and control resonates with mechanisms that allow us to control the boundaries in time, space, perception and communication that allow us to selectively open and close ourselves to both general and particular sets of “others”. Altman also described the systems, tools and behaviours we use to create, defend and appropriately modify our sense of privacy so as to align with our ever changing needs. He notes three types of boundary tools. The first use verbal and non verbal behaviours by which we invite others to enter or to leave our individual spaces. The second is built upon on environmental constraints and opportunities we build and inhabit such as doors, fences, passwords and speaking platforms. Finally, Altman notes cultural constraints such as the type of questions that are appropriately asked, the loudness of voice and the amount of touching that we use to build and reinforce interpersonal boundaries that culturally define privacy spaces and practices. Each of these boundary behaviours has evolved over millennium and been finely honed by evolutionary selection. The Net however has evolved with break neck speed and creates privacy concerns with which we have had little experience nor time in which to evolve appropriate boundary tools and systems.
Palen and Dourish (2003) invite us to “unpack’ our concepts of privacy for a networked context. They note that “With information technology, our ability to rely on these same physical, psychological and social mechanisms for regulating privacy is changed and often reduced.” If we return to Altamns’ three sets of boundary tools we see that each is fundamentally altered by network affordances. Verbal and nonverbal behaviours certainly change in networked contexts and the diversity of networked contexts (from text messages to immersive interaction with avatars) make generalizations challenging. Most notably networked behaviours span boundaries of time. A Google search reveals not only the comments I made this week or last, but as easily reveals my comments of years past. Given that the boundaries I use to protect and define my privacy comfort zone are ever changing and context dependent, it is important that I know who threatens these barriers, such that I can raise the appropriate level of boundary protection. Unfortunately, such awareness of others is often not possible on the net. The searcher of my name may as easily be a trusted colleague, potential new friend, an aggressive salesman or a identity thief. Further more the audience changes over time. Trusted colleagues one year may become aggressive competitors a year later, information that I may be proud to share this year, may proof highly embarrassing in the years to come.
Environmental boundaries also are morphed on the Net. All but the most tightly encrypted activity on the Net leaves traces. Many net users use multiple email addresses and maintain multiple identities in immersive environments and open social software sites so that they can contain these traces. Passwords, access to members and friends and other security tools replace locks and keys from the physical world but fill similar functions. As in real worlds locks, doors barriers require active maintenance and attention if they are to adequately serve as boundary defenders.
Finally, the cultural boundaries are perhaps most profoundly altered in networked contexts. There are as yet only emerging standards and clearly understand social norms that are acknowledge and adhered to by net citizens. For example, many of us have different standards in regard to the email functions such as use of blind copies, forwarding messages with or without approval, release of our own or the email addresses of others. In even newer contexts such as SecondLife, World of Warcraft and other immersive environments, social and cultural practices are constantly being evolved and altered and currently these customs must evolve in times when millions of new users are exploring these environments as new comers.
We see that the maintenance of privacy and the boundary tools that we use are in many ways markedly dissimilar than those we encounter in real life contexts. Thus, it should come as no surprise that privacy issues are a major concern of all who use the net and perhaps especially so for those using social software tools for both formal and informal learning. No easy asnwers, but I don’t see any compelling reasons to attemopt to totally lockdown our or our students capacity to explore and gain control over their own emerging sense of privacy and security.
A last word to David Weinberger who describes the conversations across networks as “The web releases thoughts before they’re ready so we con work on them together. And in these conversations we hear multiple understandings of the world, for conversation thrives on difference” p. 203.
Altman, I. (1976). Privacy: A conceptual analysis. Environment and Behavior, 8(1), 7-29
Palen, L., & Dourish, P. (2003). Unpacking “privacy” for a networked world Retrieved Dec. 2007 from http://www.ics.uci.edu/~jpd/publications/2003/chi2003-privacy.pdf.
Weinberger, D. (2007). Everything is Miscellaneous. New York: Times Books.