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A new book & fresh look at online privacy

We may not be fully aware of it yet, but as our media environment is changing – from a top-down (regulated, professionally produced) one to a user-driven, multidirectional, social one – so is our idea of privacy. Slowly, maybe, but changing it is.

In their new book, A New Culture of Learning, University of Southern California Profs. Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown touch on how today’s either/or, public/private construct evolved out of Aristotle’s framework of rhetoric as “speech for the masses (the public)” vs. philosophy as “a subject for personal (and often private) conversation.” But that binary framework, Thomas and Brown say, is being “exacerbated” by the way social media work.

Spaghetti bowl of expression

“Objections to young people using sites such as Facebook or MySpace are often founded on the concern that today’s youth are unable to distinguish between information that is appropriate for the public domain and information that ought to remain private,” the authors write. But that either/or approach doesn’t match the granularity and complexity of a medium that mirrors life itself, where a huge swath of humanity is posting thoughts, personal news, photos and other expressions of their own lives to the tune of 4 billion items a day in Facebook alone, most of them parts of shared activities, like conversations, group photos, and other collaborative expressions, to add my own view to theirs (see this post). So instead of just salt ‘n’ pepper, media’s now a multi-ingredient spaghetti bowl of human expression.

“Perhaps the fact that the boundary between [public and private] is becoming so permeable indicates a need for a new way to think about the differences between them,” Thomas and Brown write. “We suggest a framework that has elements of both but involves intertwining and remixing – rather than opposing – domains: the personal combined with the collective.” So the spaghetti bowl is more like a colander!

In public or in the collective?

“The personal,” they continue, “is the basis for an individual’s notions of who she is (identity) and what she can do (agency).” Though personal expression can happen either privately or publicly, it does not happen in a vacuum, the authors write. Neither are identity or agency isolated. They always have a context, such as a family, a peer group, a congregation, or school life, to name just a few examples. “We shape and define the boundaries of our agency and identity within the collective.” Note that this “collective,” the authors explain, is more narrow than the broad, anonymous notion of “public.” “Collectives are made up of people who generally share values and beliefs about the world and their place in it, who value participation over [mere] belonging, and who engage in a set of shared practices.”

So parents, do you see how much less threatening this new media reality – and the sharing and personal expression in it – might be than the notion that children are merely putting stuff out there in public? “Sharing something personal with a collective is very different from taking something private and putting it into the public domain,” Thomas and Brown write. [And BTW, research published in Archives of Pediatrics showed that sharing personal information online is not related to online victimization.]

Still through the lens of Aristotle?!

Of course this is not to say kids aren’t making public what their parents feel should be private. Certainly we can help them think about what we in our family call “situational awareness,” whether online or offline – what’s appropriate to say and share in different situations. But as we work with our children, it may be helpful to think about the lens through which we’re seeing them (make it a little more current than Aristotle’s, perhaps?) and be aware that, in their sharing, there could very well be more positive stuff going on than the binary lens we’re used to allows us to see. Our openness to the reality Thomas and Brown describe offers us valuable glimpses of those expressions of identity and agency in our children’s lives, including in social media – and of the intelligence and mindfulness they often express entirely on their own. I highly recommend this book to parents and educators.

Readers, as you can imagine from its full title – A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change – Thomas and Brown’s little (137-page) book covers a great deal more ground than privacy – and, to me, a great deal more even than what its title suggests. In a readable, anecdotal way, it walks us parents and educators around a bit in this new learning space that the vast majority of our children are experiencing in varying degrees. It demystifies this “informal learning” social media scholars talk about when they refer to our kids’ use of social media so we’re in a better position to help our children maximize the benefits of a networked world.

Related links

  • “A generation of liars”?: About 43 minutes into this meaty panel discussion, “Growing Up with the Mobile Net,” Adam Thierer of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center and Jules Polonetsky of the Future of Privacy Forum seemed to agree that the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) – which their fellow panelist Alan Simpson’s organization, Common Sense Media, is seeking to extend past the age of 12 – is problematic even now, whether or not broadened, because it has created “a generation of liars” (kids under 13 lying about their age to set up an account in social network sites). Their argument sounds – aptly, I think, and interestingly – a lot like Harvard Prof. Lawrence Lessig’s argument that current enforcement of copyright law has created a generation of criminals. Serious food for thought! In that conversation too, Jules refers to social network sites as “adult environments,” and I think it’s ironic and maybe useful to point out that COPPA itself – with the minimum age this children’s privacy, not safety, law established for sites to allow the posting of personal info without parental consent – is what led to our defining them as “adult environments” (see social media researcher danah boyd’s view on COPPA). The panel, moderated by Tim Lordan, executive director of the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee, was part of the Advisory Committee’s “State of the Mobile Net” conference in May.
  • An interview with the authors of A New Culture of Learning, by Henry Jenkins, their colleague at University of Southern California, in his blog
  • “U13s on social sites: Who’ll get the equation right?”
  • “Under-age on Facebook: New study”
  • “A window onto family Facebook use: TRUSTe study”
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