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Facebook, Digital Identities, openness, sharing and privacy

November 5th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

Lets return to the Facebook dilemmas. Why am I so hung up about this at them moment? Its because though some empirical research I am doing at the moment – and from talking to friends and colleagues – Facebook seems to be playing increasingly important role in their lives and digital identities. And it is not just their online lives – Facebook is bridging the physical world and day to day social interactions within the digital. especially for young people, what they are talking about at school is what their friends have been saying and doing on Facebook the previous evening (or night as it seems to be for so many people). And of course from another perspective – the online discussions are based often on face to face social encounters.

Thus the widespread adoption of Facebook as a part of peoples everyday lives exposes issues around social networking – issues which have not been sufficently studied and which pose dilemmas for us as researchers and as a society.

I have read a series of blog posts recently by teachers frustrated at legal limits at posting any pictures of students on-line. These are teachers who want to celebrate their students achievements yet are unable to because of restrictions imposed on the rights to post images. Equally I have talked to educational technologists and researchers frustrated by the timidity of progress there is in terms of implementing social networking features in educational web sites for fear of transgressing perceived (or real) privacy rules

On the other had I have talked to people, young and not so young, deeply unhappy about images posted and tagged by others with their names and about which they knew nothing. With the present Facebook settings anyone is free to upload any picture of another person and tag them. Yet these images form an integral part of our digital identity and are an area over which we have little control. this can be of considerable distress to teenagers who may be concerned about their appearance, or indeed to adults. And as previous studies have shown it is remarkably difficult to get an image erased from Facebook, once it has been posted. Equallyworrying is that the present Facebook tagging system makes it very easy for many people, whether friends or not, to access photo albums.

Facebook does have settings, which allow for more privacy. But the default settings are remarkably open: it probably is simply not in Facebook’s interests to discourage more restrictive settings. And how many people know how to change their privacy settings in Facebook.

I am all for openness, open education, open discussions, open knowledge and a culture of sharing. Yet as digital identities become ever more important, it is critical that we have the rights and the tools to manage that identity and that social network providers appreciate and support those rights and make it easy for individuals to understand how they can mange both privacy and openness. This is an issue which will not go away.

4 Responses to “Facebook, Digital Identities, openness, sharing and privacy”

  1. Nick Sharratt says:

    It is an interesting and challenging topic.

    My own musings on the specific issue of adding tagging meta data to images shared online are here:

    where I conclude this may be a passing issue as society evolves a new attitude to ‘privacy’.

    Just pondering now if perhaps the new approach will be more akin to small communities where everything may be public but people choose to act as if they are private – at the moment, we’re unused to things being so public and so it’s a novelty and we worry that others will feel inclined to peek at our lives as we might at theirs, but if everything is public, pehaps we’ll accept that and ignore it to restore a feeling of privacy for ourselves. We won’t comment on things we might see of others as it will become ‘rude’ to have pried despite things actually being public.

    Whatever transpires, it’s clear we are in transition somewhere 🙂


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