Like many educators with a social media agenda, I’m concerned with fear mongering, accusations and sometimes deleterious effects of snooping, stalking and Big Brother invasion of private spaces. The arguments against and the fear of participation in even semi-private networks, such as the ELGG environment we are building at Athabasca University, are real and palatable to a significant percentage of current and potential users. However, potential harm masks an equally large potential for participation, connection and building of social capital. Despite the affordance to control privacy settings offered in ELGG environments, some have argued that they see little point of posting anything as all it does is raise the potential for abuse and misuse. I use this post to expand on arguments over disclosure and surveillance.

There is no point in denying the capacity for uninformed users to reveal more of themselves than they ought to. In a 2007 study of adolescent web profiles on Facebook,  Moreno, Parks & Richardson found:

  • 47% –  contained risk behavior information
  • 21% – described sexual activity;
  • 25% – described alcohol use;
  • 9%   – described cigarette use; and
  • 6%   – described drug use.
  • 97% – Contained personally identifying information: 74% included an identifiable picture;
  • 75% – included subjects’ first names or surnames; and
  • 78% – included subjects’ hometowns”

Obviously, these young people need to learn to either edit their comments or control their privacy settings. But it isn’t only adolescents who don’t do a good job of controlling their public posts. In a 2008 study of 271 blogs run by medical professionals, Lagu, Koofman and Ashe found that “56.8% of blog authors provided sufficient information in text or image to reveal their identities. Individual patients were described in 114 (42.1%) blogs.  Patients were portrayed positively in 43 blogs (15.9%) and negatively in 48 blogs (17.7%). Of blogs that described interactions with individual patients, 45 (16.6%) included sufficient information for patients to identify their doctors or themselves. Three blogs showed recognizable photographic images of patients 11.4% of blogs promoted commercial health care products.”

One is tempted to think that the only rational solution to social networking and blogging is not to do it. But there are substantial benefits and a growing need for all of us to properly exploit the  advantages while mitigating disadvantages. In a 2008 paper on First Monday, Albrechtslund makes an argument for the positive benefits of “participatory surveillance” . He notes that the ordinary concept of surveillance connotes a sense of unwilling observation. However, millions of social network users are finding out that willful participation in surveillance (being seen by others or what Dalsgaard and Paulsen (2009) refer to as  ‘transparency’), allows participants to be found and connected to by lost friends, potential soul mates, profitable new business contacts, fellow hobbyists and a host of other other formal and informal connections Most of these connections could not have been forged prior to the networked era. Albrechtslund argues that such willful participation in surveillance “changes the role of the user from passive to active, since surveillance in this context offers opportunities to take action, seek information and communicate. Online social networking therefore illustrates that surveillance – as a mutual, empowering and subjectivity building practice – is fundamentally social” and in most cases a very positive human behaviour.

What to do?

Much attention has been paid by both users and agents such as Canada’s Privacy Commissionaire. To the overly complex and potentially unlawful ways in which Facebook and other social networks extract and use personal information. In a 2007 study  Strater & Richter found that 67% of college students had not restricted access beyond the default public view to much personal information. Recently Facebook has been presenting its users with screens of information (most of which is likely unread) to allow for more fine tunded control.

We’ve learned from our experience with the semi-private elgg network, Athabasca Landing, that there is no one correct privacy settings for all individuals and all of their online content. What for one user is disclosure of private information, is for others a restriction on their right to free speech and open disclosure. Elgg resolves the problem, to some degree, by creating drop down menus such that EVERY data field entered can be restricted from no read access, through to access by members of the larger University community (logged on users), to access by student, teacher or administrator generated groups, through to access by everyone including search engine spiders. We’ve also learned how important is the default setting. As with Facebook, most Landing users do not bother to change the default setting, despite differences in intended audience or amount of personal information embedded in each contribution. Thus, we are pleased to see that new versions of ELGG allow the user to set their own default level for all postings and information fields.

It is also worth while to appreciate the lesson taught to us by Scientologists in the early days of UUnet prior to the web. Scientologists found that they could not control the wide distribution on Usenet groups of their proprietary ‘spiritual secrets’ which they were actively selling to recruits for big $$$. They responded to this unwanted disclosure by flooding the ‘infected’ Usenet groups with thousands of posts  – all of which positively espoused the values of Scientology. The resultant tsunami of information caused many users to unsubscribe from the ‘infected’ groupx, or have to dig very deeply to find any of the proprietary secrets in a mass of fluff. Since personal data posted to the Net has very long persistence, it is is best to make sure that Google searches on your name or organization, produce hits detailing your accomplishments, rather than photos of antics at party  to which you you have no memory of participating in, but sure you were there!

Finally as educators we need to  realize that users need to be both supported and educated as they learn to find the level of disclosure that most meets their personal and professional need for connecting, building networks and creating social capital, while developing and protecting their indiviudal sense of personal privacy.


Albrechtslund, A. (2008). Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance. Open Monday, 13(3). Retrieved from

Dalsgaard, C., & Paulsen, M. (2009). Transparency in Cooperative Online Education. International review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3).

Moreno, M., Parks, M., & Richardson, L. (2007). What Are Adolescents Showing the World About Their Health Risk Behaviors on MySpace. MedGenMed, 9(4). Retrieved from

Strater, K., & Richter, H. (2007). Examining privacy and disclosure in a social networking community Retrieved  from

Tara Lagu, Elinore J. Kaufman, Asch (2008) Content of Weblogs Written by Health Professionals Journal of General Internal Medicine. Retrieved from