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Cyberpanics and the Great Facebook Privacy Debate

I spent half of last week at the Thoms R. Watson Conference in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Louisville. I thought I might summarize some of my talk for a HASTAC audience to begin to introduce/update my work as it's coming along.


My talk was titled "Privatize your news feed: Privacy, identity and literate activity on social network sites" and hinged on the uproar over Facebooks privacy settings that occurred in April and May of this past year. This event can be seen as what Alice Marwick would call a "technopanic," which she defines as a "moral panic as a response to fear of modernity as represented by new technologies."  One of Marwicks examples of a technopanic is the fear of child predators on MySpace, sustained by media like NBCs To Catch a Predator. For Marwick, technopanics usually involve an attempt to modify or regulate young peoples behavior or to control their media products. What is interesting about this case is that while Facebook is still a site primarily populated by young people, it is widely used by other age groups as well.  This was not just a concern over what teenagers were doing online, but over the media products adults of various ages were using as well.  Or perhaps, to look at it another way, it was an attempt to regulate the behavior of one young person: Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook himself.


During this technopanic, a backlash to changes in the way privacy settings were configured in December 2009 grew to a breaking point, caused by Facebook's announcement of its new Connect feature on April 21. The changes drew not only media criticism and public panic, but also separate complaints filed by Senator Charles Schumer and the Electronic Privacy Information Center to the Federal Trade Commission. It was unclear how much information Facebook was sharing with other companies through these Social Plugins, and the web, television, and print media exploded with stories attempting to explain the changes and to comment on their larger implications. The media coverage came from those who typically write about Facebook, such as technology sites like Read, Write, Web, Wired, and Slate, but also stories across a range of media outlets, from the Wall Street Journal, to stories on Yahoos Finance section, a cover story in Time magazine, and a very detailed chart in the New York Times mapping out all 50 of Facebooks privacy settings and more than 170 options. This technopanic culminated not just in the complaints to the FTC, but also to the announcement of May 31 as Quit Facebook Day.


I watched this event unfold with great interest, not only because Im writing my dissertation on digital literacy practices on social networking sites, but also because I saw the issue to be a public debate about rhetoric: about authorship, audience, and intellectual property. Who am I writing to? What are the consequences of this writing?  And who owns it?  While I followed online reactions by Internet scholars like danah boyd and Michael Zimmer, I saw few writing researchers commenting on an issue I saw to be integral to the kinds of issues we care about.


In my talk, I detailed the reactions my case study participants had to these events, and how they altered both their privacy settings and their behaviors online in light of them. Most of my participants went through the same pattern of reactions to the changes: They are first confused, usually hearing incomplete information about the changes from a friend or from Facebooks own (normally vague) announcements.  This is usually followed by annoyance and distrust toward the site. Then these individuals make adjustments, sometimes to their privacy settings and sometimes to their own online practices, and they stop worrying about their information on the site. In the interviews I conducted in May, for example, two of my participants discussed what it would take for them to leave the service. By the time of our most recent interviews this week, they had both worked through their concerns and found their own solutions. One participant noted in May, in fact, that he would probably never leave Facebook, because the service would give him time to adjust to what he considered to be a troubling policy change before instituting a new one. He saw this in itself as a troubling aspect of Facebook's policy changes.


This is what happened in the press as well.  After Facebook revamped its privacy settings on May 26, the technopanic died down in the media. (Though interest in Facebook overall has not, as the publication of The Facebook Effect and the release of the films The Social Network and Catfish attest.) The issues that created it in the first place have not.  Most users did not leave the service and have to find a way to manage their concerns about information sharing with the activities they do on Facebook. What this incident demonstrates is that individuals are concerned about who can see the content they share online, and media outlets have tried to turn themselves into places to educate users about these issues. Their focus on these kinds of technopanics, however, does not make them the greatest resource for Facebook users grappling with these questions, which leaves people negotiating these answers on their own. 


So what can we do, as academics, digital humanists, information scientists, writing researchers and rhetoricians? If managing this kind of daily information is now an important literacy skill, how can we intervene in or contribute to these kinds of debates?


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