Data from social media sites demonstrates the fundamental role that social media is having in the lives of everyone on our planet:
- 68% of all U.S. adults have Facebook accounts. Globally, 1.79 billion people use Facebook each month.
- Facebook’s international reach is impressive: 85% of Facebook’s daily active users are from outside North America.
- 317 million Twitter users access the system each month, nearly 80% from outside the U.S.
- LinkedIn boasts 106 million active monthly users, including an estimated 25% of all American adults.
- 100 million users access Pinterest each month, including 26% of all American adults.
- Instagram claims membership by 32% of all internet users, including 80% from outside the U.S.
According to a 2016 research report from the Pew Research Center, 97% of online adults 16–64 have used some social media platform in the last month (pewinternet.org/2016/11/11/social-media-update-2016). More than half of these online adults use more than one social media platform, and eight out of every 10 internet users across the globe access their social media from mobile devices.
Studying Social Media and Privacy
Social networking—dating services, sharing photos or family stories—isn’t new. What is new is the technological advances that allow for ubiquitous access by anyone, anywhere via mobile devices or any size computer. Information can be copied by just clicking on options to post or share content.
To date, most scholarly research on privacy and social media has focused on supply-side issues such as the willingness of individuals to disclose personal information; the potential/intention for people to transact commerce or other services on the internet; issues related to people’s disclosure of information in social settings; comparisons of involvement/ interest by people of different ages, sexes, cultures, etc.; or relat ing online behavior to other types of commerce/interaction. Most of these articles focus on the security of information and the risk/benefit paradigm in getting people’s confidence to share their information. One has to go to legal, sociological, or philosophical literature to see any in-depth research on individual confidence and privacy requirements for social media in this fluid, online environment.
Back in 1977, Robert Laufer and Maxine Wolfe (both in the environmental psychology department of City University of New York [CUNY]) published a seminal article, “Privacy as a Concept and a Social Issue: A Multidimensional Developmental Theory” (Journal of Social Issues , 33:22–42; doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.1977.tb01880.x). In this article, they develop their “calculus of behavior,” using a “privacy calculus,” measuring the usage of personal information against the potential negative consequences of disseminating that personal information. They focus on tracking definitions of privacy as technology has shifted people’s expectations and attitudes. The authors discuss the ongoing shifts in how people define privacy—all the more important today in a world in which social media services (by design) encourage/require that people disclose significant personal information. The idea of remaining obscure in today’s global web is nearly impossible. Today, we all make choices based on trade-offs between the degree or amount of privacy we surrender in exchange for some benefits thought to be worth the loss of privacy: namely, the cost of information disclosure.
The internet may be the information highway, but it is also today’s engine of global commerce. Consumer data has become essential in providing customer profiles on customer behaviors and preferences, which has allowed companies to develop, market, and distribute their services and products far more efficiently in a global context than ever before. Clearly, the data gathered, bought, and sold about people has provided key strategic benefits to companies large and small. However, it has also created significant vulnerabili ties for individuals who can hardly keep up with all the techniques, technologies, options, and pitfalls in this swiftly changing environment.
Yet, as the internet continues to evolve and the data gathered grows astronomically, so does internet use. We may be concerned about our privacy, but we realize the ubiquity of cyberspace in the 21st century. As Stephen Margolis posited in 1977, “Privacy represents the control of transactions between person(s) and other(s), the ultimate aim of which is to enhance autonomy and/or minimize vulnerability” (“Conceptions of Privacy: Current Status and Next Steps,” Journal of Social Issues 33:5–21).
New York University’s Helen Nissenbaum has long studied the intersection of privacy and technology. Her research focuses on the technological advances/functionality that threaten this increasingly many-to-many communications environment. In her book , Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life (Stanford University Press, 2010), she works to develop a “framework of contextual integrity” to better understand and explain how people perceive, balance, and understand privacy as it relates to today’s complex, technologically immersed world.