The Social Media Privacy Model: Privacy and Communication in the Light of Social Media Affordances
The relationship between privacy and control
Privacy is a concept that has been considered and defined in very different disciplines, from descriptive, empirical, and normative perspectives (Sevignani, 2016; Trepte & Reinecke, 2011). In earlier days, privacy was considered a human right and identified as the “right to be let alone” (Warren & Brandeis, 1890, p. 75).
Later and more specifically, privacy was defined as “the claim of individuals, groups, or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others” (Westin, 1967, p. 7) or “the selective control of access to the self” (Altman, 1975, p. 24). Informational control has only seldom been defined, but the most common definitions touch either a static or behavioral aspect of control: Informational control foremost means that owners of a certain piece of information have a choice over whether, when, and to what extent they will disclose or withhold personal information (Crowley, 2017; Tavani, 2007).
Here control is static, a question of more or less, yes or no. It can be understood as an option or an available mechanism. Then, control can be exerted actively (e.g., restricting access to information, audience segregation, self-censorship, encryption), ambiguously (e.g., softening the truth, obfuscating information, or engaging in other forms of partial disclosure), or passively (e.g., unintentionally omitting information) (Crowley, 2017; Ochs & Büttner, 2018). In this rather behavioral understanding, informational control is executed and experienced by the individual person.
In both perspectives, control is centered around the individual and individual decision-making. The majority of privacy theories are devoted to two—somewhat contradictory— paradigms: I will call the first paradigm “privacy as control,” because here, privacy and control are strongly connected, and, the second paradigm “privacy and control,” because here, privacy and control are treated as separate constructs with conditional relationships. I will then suggest a third perspective that redefines the meaning and impact of control and the conditions among which control becomes relevant. This perspective will be summarized in the social media privacy model.
The interplay of affordances, control, and privacy
The lack of a relationship between privacy and control might hint that the interplay of the two variables is not linear and is actually more complex (Laufer & Wolfe, 1977). The relation between control and privacy should become clearer if the social media boundary conditions that make control a functional mechanism in one situation but impractical in another are elucidated.
Social media and its boundary conditions for privacy
Carr and Hayes (2015) defined social media as “(…) Internet-based channels that allow users to opportunistically interact and selectively self-present, either in realtime or asynchronously, with both broad and narrow audiences who derive value from user-generated content and the perception of interaction with others” (p. 50). They further pointed out that users’ interaction will increasingly be influenced by social media affordances. Further, social media has been characterized by its content, its users, and its infrastructure in previous definitions (Howard & Parks, 2012).
The most prominent examples of social media are social network sites (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google+), multimedia platforms (e.g., Youtube, Slideshare, Soundcloud), weblogs (e.g., personal diaries of mothers, scholars, self-appointed or paid influencers), and microblogs (e.g., Twitter). In struggling to develop a definition of social media, scholars have pointed to the fact that social media channels are formally understood as methods of mass communication but that they primarily contain and perpetuate personal user interactions (Carr & Hayes, 2015; Papacharissi, 2010).
In this sense, social media can be referred to as personal publics (Schmidt,2014). As a consequence, users cannot always clearly define the somewhat blurred lines between personal and public or between private and professional communication.
They feel that contexts collapse and converge (Papacharissi, 2010; Vitak, 2012). In sum, social media is characterized by the following boundary conditions: the content, its flow and further uses (Howard & Parks, 2012); the communication practices that users perceive as their options for exerting control or for achieving privacy with other means; and social media affordances (Carr & Hayes, 2015). In the following, I will analyze how the interplay of these boundary conditions is related to control and how it determines different privacy perceptions and behaviors.
Social media boundary condition 1: Content, its flow and uses
What exactly does an individual strive to control? The sooner we come to understand what individuals strive to control, the better we can evaluate whether the control can be experienced in social media. According to most studies, personal information refers to the content that people strive to control in order to maintain their privacy in social media. Metzger (2004) referred to personal information as the content to be controlled.
Quinn (2014)suggested different layers of how privacy can be maintained. On the “content layer,” users’ experience of a lack of control leads them to limit the information they post or even to post false information. Sarikakis and Winter (2017) added on the basis of their qualitative work that users do not differentiate between personal information and personal data.
Instead, they define the degree of intimacy or privacy needed for a certain piece of information or data. Then, besides personal information, the flow and use of the content need to be considered. Social media advocates specifically address where online information is forwarded, archived, and sold.
They emphasize users’ concerns about how little control they have over the flow and use of personal information (Marwick & Boyd, 2014; Quinn, 2014; Tsay-Vogel, Shanahan, & Signorielli, 2018). This refers to the forms personal information takes, to where it ends up, and how it is used.
Author: Sabine Trepte