Social Media: Too Much Transparency, or Not Enough?

Worried that there might be too much information about you online? Microsoft researcher and social media expert danah boyd says it's better to worry that there may not be enough.

"The material that is being put up online is searchable by anyone, and it is being constantly accessed -- out of context and without any level of nuance," boyd told attendees of the Supernova conference on business innovation in Philadelphia on Friday. "That kind of spotlight on people can be deeply devastating, and a type of exposure that may not be beneficial to society."

Put simply, boyd said, "we can't divorce information from interpretation ... or we risk grave inaccuracy." Case in point: boyd said that she and her research team came across the online record of a woman that lists her arrest on charges of sodomy against a minor. "I think everybody would think, just by seeing this bit of information, that this person is not somebody we would want anywhere near us," boyd said. "But when I tell the story about a 17-year-old in Georgia who was arrested because she was forced into having sex with a 15-year-old classmate in school and now has a permanent record of sodomy against a minor, we then have a very different image of what's going on."

Okay, so who gets to decide whether the information we see about ourselves and others online is (or isn't) complete? That's where it gets really uncomfortable, boyd says. We don't have complete control. "(Anyone) can put together massive amounts of dossiers on people, but where are the ethics and responsibilities around doing this? ...Journalists have had an interesting and long-standing discussion about ethics and privacy but that same concern doesn't necessarily pervade the blogging culture," boyd said. "People who don't see themselves as journalists now have the same rights and the technology to speak really loudly."

A big part of the problem, boyd says, is that people can't agree on a definition of privacy. "We don't know what we're talking about (when we use the term), companies don't know what they're talking about and the media don't know," she said. But boyd took a stab at it:

"What I have found from talking to a lot of people is that privacy is about understanding a social situation and how information will flow -- and then making decisions that will recognize this. ...People scream 'privacy fail' when they feel they've lost control of the context of what is being said; when they feel as though the system has told them the information will flow one way but then they find out it will flow differently ... and it's also important to realize that people see privacy as something related to the different actors they care about -- or don't (such as parents or other local authority figures like teachers, college admissions officers, employers and social influencers). I promise you that come fall, we will be debating what notions of privacy we care about as we think about regulation."

Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do?, shared the  Supernova stage with boyd on the subject and agreed that society lacks consensus over what privacy is. "What forces our fears about privacy are very important to deal with," Jarvis said, " ...but the social Web is (triggering) Gutenberg-like changes here, so we don't know where this is all headed."

For more on the evolving privacy debate, see my earlier privacy posts, Google Oogled, Activists Launch Petition Drive for Facebook Users' Bill of Rights and Radical Shock.

What do you think? Is there too much information about you or your company online  or not enough? Let us hear from you.