Privacy on the internet

Hand-in-hand with my interest in social software and social networking technologies is an interest in privacy on the internet. Slowly but surely, the landscape is changing.

We’ve all seen the news stories about people who have lost their jobs because of a blog post or something on a profile on MySpace or Facebook. But here’s a new twist: earlier this month, Read Write Web reported on a college student who not only lost a student teaching job because of a photo & caption on her MySpace profile, but as a result her college converted some credits to change her degree in education to one in English. I haven’t looked up anything else on this story, but as RWW reports, the situation is a little more complex than a simple matter of the woman in question not using her privacy settings (which she obviously hadn’t been). It sounds like there were some disagreements between her and her supervising teacher, and the article hints at the possibility that the woman either wasn’t cut out for high school teaching, or she didn’t receive the kind of mentoring one would expect while in a student teaching position. Anyway, I can’t really comment on this case much more than that, but Abby and I got to talking about it.

Abby wondered “when did we (as a society) cross the line from things being private on the Internet to no privacy at all?” I’d argue that this initial idea of privacy was driven by two things in the early days of the internet.

At first, “going online” wasn’t something that most people did (or could do). You had to have this crazy machine in your house or place of work, and set up a connection over your telephone line, and then you had to know how to find stuff. (Remember, Google hasn’t been as big as it is now since day one.) So, there was a smaller community of people regularly online than we see now. (In fact, at this point we don’t even talk about a community of people who go online – without getting into a discussion of the digital divide, I think we assume that pretty much everyone could get online in some fashion if they cared to.) So this false sense of privacy was, I think, more a matter of anonymity in a place where not many people were posting anything or looking for anything to begin with.

Secondly, with the rapid rise of social networking sites, I think it’s become much easier to find people. Rather than doing a Google search, you can go straight to MySpace and Facebook and be fairly certain that you’ll find a profile on the person you’re looking for – and that’s especially the case with folks in their early twenties and younger.

So now we’re in a situation where more people have access to the Internet and know how to use it to find information; meanwhile, more people are posting personal information about themselves, and to a large degree, those people are posting that information in the same few places. How often do you take a minute to poke around online and see if you can dig up information on someone you just met? Come on, admit it. Even if it’s just out of curiosity, rather than a desire to vet their background for professional reasons, you’re still doing it. If you post something online, to a certain extent that means you want it to be found.

Whether or not you want it to be found by every single person who finds it is the real question. I think that’s what we’re struggling with now, and that’s where the protagonists in a lot of these stories are falling down. They have a blog, or a MySpace page, and it just doesn’t occur to them that someone at their job or their school will find it — and pass judgment. As a society, I think it will take some time before we find the limits and norms here. I hope we come to a place where there’s a healthy balance between understanding that you need to think before you post, and understanding that despite the ease of finding personal information online, there is still a line between the personal and professional for the majority of us.

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