Thursday, February 17, 2011

Telling your story, public and private

Our notions of privacy online are often confused and convoluted. We assume that to gain privacy we must ‘lock down’ our data, and yet often by default, what we share is public. As Danah Boyd puts it, our interactions online are ‘public by default, private through effort.’

For many teens, the way around this is to simply fabricate information in their profiles and to hide personal information in plain sight. They rely on in jokes and inside knowledge to disceminate personal responses to their peer groups.

This creative approach is not uncommon, and entirely in keeping with a young adults search for identity. The teenage years are a time of discovery and rediscovery, of trying on new notions of self to see how they fit. Notions of personal identity online are important to young adults, it’s just that they are more elastic, more prone to change.
The stories we tell about ourselves help us to define who we are, we look to our audience for approval, for acknoledgement and acceptance. The problem is that in the past, these stories changed as we grew older and the older notions of self slipped away.
Today, remnants of who we were may remain online our entire lives. The digital flotsam that drifts with us continues to influence perceptions of who we are online to greater and lesser degrees. Increasinly the problem of context, how this old information is perceived, is becoming apparent. For adults, the ability to see this in context, to be confident in who we have become, makes this notion less problematic.
For a young adult, perhaps still struggling with identity and notions of self, this historical data can be a concern. Will they continue to be judged by that photo from that party taken last year? Will their competance continue to be judged by the comments made in a blog post last week.
Young adults are aware of privacy, it’s just very difficult to negotiate. When the default setting is often public, and the privacy settings are complex, it’s easy to share things we regret.
It’s therefore crucial that we reassure young adults about their futures, that they appreciate that their lives online will be viewed holistically as they grow older. The alternative is to deny them notions of freedom in yet another arena of their lives.