Interstices of Cyberspace and Subjectivity

It has become clear to me that the value of this ethnography lies not in my description of experiences, but rather in elucidating the myriad shifting possibilities that emerge in the highly intersubjective field of discourses. As my research has deepened, the one thread that ties these discourses together is the pervasive feelings of anxiety evoked by the blurred boundaries between subject and object, voyeur and exhibitionist, human and machine, reality and imagination. All technologies extend the possibilities of humankind, and in turn, they become humanized and embedded in everyday experiences. However, at times technologies may seem alien and incomprehensible, instigating fear and a sense of powerlessness. The sense of agency felt as one “types oneself into being” through the creation of a publicly viewable online profile can quickly be negated by the discovery that this personal freedom comes with the cost of possible persecution by unintended audiences, such as potential employers and legal authorities. What occurs is a split of selfhood, a temporal shift of identity from intentional author to victimized object of the gaze.

Despite the existential anxieties that arise frequently in everyday discourse, many celebrate the Internet for its potential to democratize information. The perceptual difference between the democratization of information and the invasion of personal privacy lies in the degree of power individuals perceive themselves as having over the medium, as well as the extent to which they feel the medium has power over them. A common way of regaining control and agency when confronting one’s own powerlessness is with words and thoughts, projecting apathy or distaste and finding affirmation through others. Feeling a loss of connection, my friend described her adolescent brother as “consumed by MySpace, his gaze never turning from the computer screen”. For her brother, it is likely that MySpace conveniently fulfills his youthful desire to hang out in a space safe, away from the judging gaze of his family. To reject or criticize is to reclaim one’s subjectivity, or at least portray oneself as the author of one’s own meanings.

Years ago, I endeavored to learn Swahili and travel to Zanzibar for fieldwork. As I became engaged with the actual practice of writing ethnography, however, it became clear to me that writing the “other” would always feel somewhat wrong, condescending. When I wrote my first paper on Facebook back in the spring of 2006, I was struck by the way in which my own experiences resonated in my writing, how the words of others challenged and complicated my perspective with layers of meaning. In other words, I realized the ethnographic authority in my own position as a “native” of an emergent “other”. Eventually, the real struggle became that of subverting such a perceived authority in pursuit of deep listening- of practicing empathetic, temporal re-interpretations of my interpretations. It is easy to say in theory, but difficult to show in practice. As such, I have concocted plans for a website that would ideally bring to life the co-constructive nature of this project by enabling further co-authorship in the form of a wiki . Rather than simply purporting a “native” interpretation, such an ethnography incorporates the voices of “other natives” as well as “others”. As for now? I no longer have a working title. That, too, must emerge out of the thematic coalescence of the many stories and experiences that demand still further interpretation.

Lit Review: Information Revelation and Privacy in Online Social Networks (The Facebook Case) (Gross & Acquisti)

The researchers conducted an analysis of over 4,000 college students using Facebook at Carnegie Mellon, utilizing the lens of information revelation and related privacy implications.
-Sought to examine the openness of individuals in revealing information (such as contact information, political and sexual orientation, and intimate details of one’s personal life) freely posted in the public realm of the Internet.
-Collected actual field data, rather than surveys or experiments.

Information Revelation and Online Social Networking

1. Identifiability
-Varies according to the nature of the site, though most encourage identifiable photos.
2. Types of information elicited
-range from the semi-public to the private to entirely open-ended (diary communities).
3. Visibility of information
-Can be viewed by all members or limited to one’s personal network.

-Anecdotal evidence reveals an utter willingness of members to reveal private information.
-Social Network Theory and Privacy: Discussions center on the complex nature of one’s propensity to disclose personal information, the importance of weak ties in the formation of social capital, and expectations of privacy.
-In the offline world, relationships are dynamic and can exist at multiple levels of intimacy. Online, relationships are reduced to simply “friend or not”.
-Though not necessarily supportive of strong ties, the Internet facilitates the formation of a large and dispersed network of weak ties.
-Situating the Internet as a vast network of rather weak ties, it has been described by some as an imagined community (Anderson), and thus the meaning of trust must be renegotiated, as well as the meaning of intimacy.
-The Internet slightly facilitates meaningful interaction while greatly enhancing the ability of others to access your information.
-Privacy Implications: Photos, demographic data, unique tastes may lead to a re-identification of an individual belonging to more than one SNC. This occurs either through recognition of a pseudonymous user by searching for this information, or knowledge of unknown characteristics of an identified subject on another site.
-Members are often not fully aware of a hosting site’s privacy policies concerning information disclosure, or the magnitude of the site’s user population and/or data archival.
-Risks include identity theft, stalking, embarrassment and blackmailing.
-Factors in information revelation include peer pressure, perceived benefits outweighing potential harm, casual attitudes regarding privacy, lack of awareness of threat, trust in the service and its members, or the SNC interface itself.
-College-oriented SNCs are often based on a shared real space that is extended to a bounded virtual domain.
-Increased sense of trust and intimacy, however outsider access and rapid network expansion quickly challenge the “realness” of the community and expectations of privacy.
-Photo: 91%; Birthday: 87.8%; Phone: 39.9%; Residence: 50.8%; Dating Preferences, Relationship Status, Religious and Political Views
-Facebook encourages validity of information and a valid e-mail address.
–>89% real names, 8% fake names, 3% first name only
–>91% provide images: 61% directly identifiable, 80% useful for identification, 12% unrelated – in comparison to Friendster: 23% joke images, 55% directly identifiable
–>CMU students average 78.2 friends at CMU and 54.9 at other schools
Data Visibility and Privacy Preferences: Default settings allow everyone at same institution to view full profile, and full name/institution/status/photo show up in any general search. However, visibility and searchability are able to be defined by the individual user. Less than 3% of users alter their privacy settings.

Privacy Implications

-Facebook users appear generally unconcerned about information disclosure and potential ramifications.
1. Stalking: Physical presence can be determined based on location and class schedule; AIM (listed by 77.7% of users).
2. Re-Identification: the linkage of non-explicit information (name, address) with explicit information (common attributes). This can be based on demographics (all one needs is zip code, gender, and birthdate- provided by 44.3% of users), face (provided by 55.4%), social security number and identity theft (birthdate, residence, phone number)
3. Building a Digital Dossier: Sensitive data revealed in college, such as sexual orientation and political reviews, is archived and can potentially be mined in the future.
4. Fragile Privacy Protection: Social networks can be hacked! E-mail addresses can be hacked, manipulation of users (when 250,000 users were sent a friend request, 30% were willing to make all of their information available by accepting), advanced search features are available to anyone in the network looking to search for someone at any college

This article is slightly dated (2005), and concerns over privacy on the Internet have since grown exponentially due to media dramatization and new features implemented by Facebook (namely, the News Feed, which encouraged many to finally implement some of the privacy options made available to users). A simple survey tapping into perceived privacy, protective behaviors, and perceived audience would be easy to implement- Facebook does make recruiting participants a lot easier! Also, Facebook has since updated their privacy policy- a little highlighted review:

We may use information about you that we collect from other sources, including but not limited to newspapers and Internet sources such as blogs, instant messaging services and other users of Facebook, to supplement your profile. Where such information is used, we generally allow you to specify in your privacy settings that you do not want this to be done or to take other actions that limit the connection of this information to your profile (e.g., removing photo tag links).

We do not provide contact information to third party marketers without your permission. We share your information with third parties only in limited circumstances where we believe such sharing is 1) reasonably necessary to offer the service, 2) legally required or, 3) permitted by you.

We may be required to disclose user information pursuant to lawful requests, such as subpoenas or court orders, or in compliance with applicable laws. We do not reveal information until we have a good faith belief that an information request by law enforcement or private litigants meets applicable legal standards. Additionally, we may share account or other information when we believe it is necessary to comply with law, to protect our interests or property, to prevent fraud or other illegal activity perpetrated through the Facebook service or using the Facebook name, or to prevent imminent bodily harm. This may include sharing information with other companies, lawyers, agents or government agencies.

If the ownership of all or substantially all of the Facebook business, or individual business units owned by Facebook, Inc., were to change, your user information may be transferred to the new owner so the service can continue operations.

Individuals who wish to deactivate their Facebook account may do so on the My Account page. Removed information may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time but will not be generally available to members of Facebook.

Lit Review: Digital Relationships in the ‘MySpace’ Generation: Results From a Qualitative Study (Dwyer)

A qualitative study of online social networking sites and instant messaging.

-CMC reduces the exchange of social context cues, affecting perceptions of truthfulness, interpretation and response to messages, and the formation of impressions.
–Social Information Processing Model (Walther): CMC relies on paralinguistics, slowing the rate at which social cues are received.
-Impression Management (Goffman): The subtle process of controlling another’s perception of something by managing the information exchanged in a social interaction. When that something is one’s own identity, it is referred to as self-presentation. We interpret others through inference of their roles, derived from the information they or others present to us.
-Social-Technical Gap: The space between what technology can support and what actually happens in the social world.

The Study
-Examined the use of technology to manage relationships, and the ways in which these technologies mediate behaviors pertaining to the management of these relationships.
-The semi-structured interview designed inquired about self-presentation/impression management, pros and cons of these systems, usage and dependency for social communication. It also probed participants for information on how they used the tools provided by this systems in developing new relationships, restricting access, and responding to negative events. Expectations of privacy were also investigated, pertaining to what individuals felt comfortable with sharing and why.
-Interviews were conducted by 6 undergraduates, who interviewed a total of 19 college-aged participants. The transcripts were content-analyzed and coded.
-Participants reported heavy use of communication technologies, heralding their low cost, entertainment value, and convenience.
-Profiles provide the opportunity for impression management. Authenticity plays a large role here- profiles that appear (or are known to be) false or contrived trigger a very negative impression. However, they also discussed the need to create a “cool” persona and intense awareness of how others would perceive their self-presentations. Nevertheless, the act of constructing one’s profile was generally considered a fun, entertaining activity.
-As one participant put it, “The defining characteristic of social networking sites is extreme impersonality. The people that one talks to on these sites are not treated as other human beings. They appear more like characters in a story.”
-Though privacy concerns have been well-documented, the participants expressed general apathy, countering that they as members are responsible for the content and management of their virtual personas.
-Acknowledged that relationships formed online are superficial in nature.
-General enjoyment of these systems’ ability to maintain bonds with those one doesn’t see every day, as well as reunite one with old friends.
-Instant Messenger Away Messages: A user is able to monitor others while behind the “barrier” of the away message.
-Comfort level increased as the degree of their own anonymity rose, decreased with the anonymity of others.

Communication technology features (profile, visibility, and identity management) enable interpersonal relationship management (forming new relationships, maintaining existing relationships), which is in turn influenced by individual attitudes (impression management, concern for information privacy).

Questions Raised
How is impression management carried out within CMC?
How to explain the apparent contradiction between privacy concerns and the overwhelming popularity of social networking sites?

Individuals are fluid, not static, and in the act of creating a profile of the self one undergoes a strangely simplified process of impression management. I would like to examine the paralanguage of Internet communities, the ways in which social cues are subtly communicated, as well as the complex ways in which impression management is enacted.