Social media: blurring the boundaries

In the past we used to be able to separate the public from the private and business from the personal quite easily. But this was an aberration.

Privacy was a tiny blip in the long history of human existence. Going back only as far as our great grandparent’s generation privacy was relatively rare. And in the generations before that privacy was considered almost absurd, even for the very rich.

Most people lived in small cramped houses and shared their space with many others. In those days even conjugal relations were not private for most people.

Most people lived in villages too, where just about everyone knew each other’s business. But for a very short period, during the mid to late twentieth century, privacy was possible in the western world due to a new standard of housing.

It was the post World War 2 housing – where each nuclear family had its own house – that made privacy possible. Finally Mum and Dad had personal space and sometimes even the kids had their own rooms. For a brief period in the twentieth century privacy became the norm.

But with the Digital Revolution in the early twenty first century we have made a return to the village. And this time the village is virtual.

This digital village means that the boundaries between public and private, business and personal are becoming increasingly blurred. I’ve taken to drawing them as a Venn diagram.

As we adopt the various social computing platforms in our personal lives – such as Facebook, Digg, Slideshare, YouTube, or Twitter – we blur the boundaries between public and private by our own making. Then, as companies and other organisations adopt the same technologies for business purposes and ask us to drive them, we begin the blur the boundaries between business and personal.

As a result we are turning into:

“ambient broadcasters who disclose a great deal of personal information in order to stay connected and take advantage of social, economic, and political opportunities.”

Source: Mike Sachoff webpronews.com

And, by means of this broadcasting of our information, we are paying the social media platform providers through our data. These providers are not making their platforms available to us for free. They are doing it because our data is the goldmine of the twenty first century. We are paying them by giving away data about our lives, which are increasingly exposed online in the virtual village.
web21-300x197This view of data as critical to the new internet (often called Web 2.0) was explained by Tim O’Reilly back in 2005 and is summarised nicely in this diagram by Ajit Jaokar.

And this new interactive and easier to use web is compelling to many of us. It enables us to do many things including:

  • Build friendships
  • Find and form communities
  • Seek or share help and expertise
  • Build reputations
  • Find out who is trustworthy and reputable
  • Do business and make money
  • Find jobs
  • Have fun

But let’s put all of this aside for a moment to consider human nature. And to start let’s consider an old saying:

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. ”
Source: Ecclesiastes 1:9-14

Thus one thing we need to keep in mind about this digital village we’re living in now is that no human behaviour happens online that does not already happen offline. What is different, however, is the the amplification effects of the web and the way that the medium facilitates amplified responses.

We’ve all seen the poor secretary somewhere who writes an email only have it go global almost overnight and then lose their job. That’s the amplification effect of the web. In the past that conversation might have got out to a small group of people via word of mouth. But now it truly can go global in a matter of hours.

And, while this digital village gives rise to an enormous number of benefits and opportunities, it also gives rise to some risks.

The three key risks I see are:

  • Reputation. The amplification effects of the web mean that news moves fast and bad news moves faster.  Thus while it has become easier and faster to build a reputation online, it is also easier for unflattering images and commentary to proliferate.After all how many times have you gone out with friends only to find the pictures are already up on Facebook or Flickr by the time you arrive home? Here is a great example of this phenomenon (no it’s not me in that picture 😉 ).
  • Job. The blurring between business and personal currently gives rise to a number of conflicts in the workplace.  Some employers frown upon online participation by their staff, others demand it of unwilling staff.In any case, we are still working out the boundaries for social media and social networking in business and the workplace. And, until we settle on the new norms, there are going to be some casualties.  I know several people who have lost jobs due to their online activity.
  • Personal safety. This risk is especially linked to the ease with which disputes can be amplified in the absence of physical interaction.There is much more effort involved to escalate a dispute if you have to walk over to someone’s house, knock on their door, ask their parents or partner if they are home, and then have a fight. But if there has been insults flung back and forth in the equivalent of a digital village square then physical action can seem to be a logical next step.An example of this is the tragic case of teens who escalated an argument online (effectively in public in the digital village). The result was one was killed due to a perceived loss of face.

This leads into the question of how we can mitigate these risks.

  • Use commonsense – if you wouldn’t disclose offline why do it online?
  • Trust your gut – if you are not comfortable doing something why do it?
  • Ask your friends
  • It’s just like the ‘real world’ so look for patterns
  • Be conscious of the power of amplification online and use that power wisely

The main thing is to:

Accept the changed landscape and plan accordingly

The human race has survived the advent of many revolutionary technologies – including the printing press, the telegraph, telephone, radio and television. Each was predicted to cause disaster to our kind and, miraculously, we appear to have survived. But, rather than the doom predicted, each of these technologies has opened up remarkable vistas of opportunity, wealth and social good for humankind.

I predict that we will adapt to the digital revolution and be as unable to imagine life without it as we can imagine life without the telephone.


Note: This post is based on a presentation at Social Media Women on 13 July 2010. The slides are up on Slideshare.

4 thoughts on “Social media: blurring the boundaries

  1. Kate I really enjoyed this. ‘Privacy is an aberration’ is such an interesting and obvious statement, now that you’ve made it 🙂

    thanks!

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  2. Tony Coleman

    I agree with your precautions around Social Media and think this is the responsibility of parents to teach their children and schools to reinforce these guidelines. We should be emphasising that on line activity is permanent and searchable. We should be encouraging young people to think :

    ‘ What future prospects are you losing by on line pictures and comments you are currently creating?’

    I disagree with the importance of personal privacy. I believe personal privacy is the cornerstone of a civil society. However I agree that in the name of ‘security’ and the creation of on line relationships we have given away a lot of our rights to personal privacy. It is my view that this is a serious mistake and our societies will pay a high price for allowing technologists to trivialise issues of personal privacy and then foolishly take it from us.

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  3. Excellent read.
    “Privacy was a tiny blip in the long history of human existence.” is a perfect invitation for more reading, and a longer discussion to elaborate…

    Like

  4. Hi Kate,

    Excellent article. Social media really enables us be recognised in whatever industry or niche we are in. We can change our own professional offering from being a commodity providing our time to a valued expert.

    It requires the skills to match our skills, capabilities and knowledge to the features of social media.

    Like

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