My Online Image: Facebook, Twitter, and Privacy

Just a few years ago social networking was primarily a past time for dramatic preteens, garage bands, and spammers, but more recently an older demographic has been drawn to sites like Facebook and Twitter, altering the landscape of these social worlds and normalizing to some extent the disclosure of personal information online. One challenge of this new technology has been the balance between privacy and public disclosure. At this point, most of us have heard the horror stories of people who posted something foolish or offensive on their Facebook page only to be fired by a boss who stumbled across it.

While I think we should all consider our jobs when we post things online, there are other layers of privacy concerns that I think are important for us to reflect on as our society moves online. Not only should we ask, “could I get in trouble for posting this picture”? but also, “why am I posting this picture?” and “is it good for other people to see this side of me?” In other words, we should not let the fact that we can broadcast our lives lead us to think that we should. That said, Facebook and other social sites do provide a unique and potentially meaningful way to communicate with family and friends. Our task becomes figuring out how to balance our privacy and communication.

First, I think it is important to note some of the less talked about pitfalls of social networking. The case is often made that these networks lead to or feed our pride and vanity, since we are essentially advertising or marketing ourselves to the world. And while this argument is fairly old by now, I believe it is still a warning that most of us (myself included) would do well to hear. Facebook is designed to allow us to define, describe, and announce ourselves to our friends, family, and the general public. If we choose to use a social networking site, it is important that we recognize the effect of the design and take steps to counter it, so that we do not give in to flagrant self-promotion.

Another danger is the feeling of pseudo-anonymity that these sites give us. They appear to allow us a safe way to proclaim our beliefs, opinions, and feelings without seriously offending anyone or getting into lengthy arguments. Whether it’s viciously denouncing the opposing political party, mocking some belief system, or proudly trumpeting our own, social networks present us with many great opportunities to arrogantly promote our beliefs without ever engaging in meaningful dialogue with our friends (online or otherwise). Thathast is not to say that one can’t share his or her thoughts or opinions online, but merely to point out that social networking sites tend to foster idea promotion, not dialogue.

Finally, social networking sites can trivialize our memories and experiences by undiscriminatingly displaying them for all our friends, and perhaps even the Internet public in general to see. This issue came to life for me when my wife and I started thinking about how we will share photos and videos of our children once we start a family. On the one hand Facebook will allow us to easily share important moments in our child’s life with our family and friends without the hassel of sending an email attachment, but on the other hand, by posting a picture or video of him or her online we will be essentially establishing their online presence without his or her consent. In addition, the tendency to share all our significant experiences and memories online can trivilize them by shifting the focus from the experience or memory itself, to the act of sharing them. There is a fine line here, but I believe there is some cause for concern when we find it acceptable and good to look at the family vacation photos of some distant aquantance of ours online, or when we feel the desire to share our own with the world.

I do not want to suggest that there is a decisively “Christian” level of privacy that we must adhere to in our Twitter or Facebook posts, but I would like to propose a series of questions which can help us think critically about our online presence:

1. Why am I posting this? A quick motivation check is usually more than enough for me to be able to tell when I am posting a status update to make myself look good or when I’m actually trying to share some thought with my friends.

2. Would I say this to a room full of my friends and family? Would I show them this picture? Asking these questions is a good way to challenge the temptation to make arrogant, flippant statements online. Assuming that all my friends and family read this, how might they react? Will this needlessly offend them? How will my non-Christian friends react?

3. Why should I share this memory? Sharing memories is an essential part of human existence, but that does not mean that all sharing is good. Photo sharing sites like Flickr encourage us to post all our photos online, leading to the mindset that our first impulse should be to post our information and media and only remove it if we have a specific concern. But understanding that once you post a picture, video, or note online it’s likely to be out there forever, perhaps our impulse ought to be not to share unless we have a good reason to.

Thankfully, most of the social networking sites have developed practical ways to help you balance your privacy with your desire to share. One way you can share photos online without exposing all your family memories to the world is to use different sites for different groups of friends. For example, when my wife and I have our first child, we will probably use a passworded Flickr to share pictures with our close family and our Facebook accounts to post a few choice photos of the little one with the rest of our friends. This will allow us some privacy will still using the benefits of the social networks.

Recently, Facebook has implimented some very extensive privacy options. Under the Privacy link on the Settings tab, you can select your profile, and choose not only which groups of people may see which types of posts you make, but you can also exclude individual people. This feature might sound like a hassle, but properly used, it can make Facebook a much more useful platform.

As with socializing in the “real world,” there is not pat answer or simple solution to the difficulties of social networking. Each relationship and scenario will dictate its own kind of appropriate communication and interaction. This requires that we are willing to consider the effects of our words and actions online, rather than accepting the increasingly common idea that our private lives are merely the juicier secrets we share online.

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • http://www.cgthomas.com/blog Corinne

    One other thing to keep in mind is how others can also post to your profile on Facebook (unless you block that feature, I think). I have had Christian friends “tag” me in rants that then showed up on my profile page, only to have them read by unbelieving friends who then said, “See? That’s what all you Christians are like! Forget this…” etc. Needless to say, it was frustrating to have hours of conversations ruined so quickly.

    My profile is very public for several reasons, but I make a habit of checking who has tagged me in pictures (and deleting those tags), what is posted to my wall, and cleaning it all up periodically. :)

    Corinnes last blog post..It’s Question Time!

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    Finally, social networking sites can trivialize our memories and experiences by undiscriminatingly displaying them for all our friends, and perhaps even the Internet public in general to see.

    I call Baloney on this. You fail to demonstrate how others seeing a photo or having knowledge of an event trivializes your participation (or memory of participation) in the event. You must have some reason for believing this to be the case, but if there are reason to support this view, they aren’t exactly intuitive.

    You seem to create a false dichotomy, pitting having memory of an event against sharing memory of an event. These, it seems to me, neither are mutually exclusive nor does one impinge on the value of the other. Was my wedding trivialized by the act of sharing it with two-hundred friends? If anything, it was enriched. Was my twenty-first birthday trivialized by the act of sharing it with forty of my closest friends? Nope, that magnified the event. Was our final decision as to what we would name our first child diminished by sharing that name (and more, making a game of it)? Not hardly.

    I think you’ve got a tough row to hoe here, Alan, but I’m interested to see if you can demonstrate how your fear here is reasonable.

    (Plus, it should be said that the photo is not the memory but merely an possible trigger to the memory. Therefore, when sharing photos, you are not sharing memories but triggers. You may expand to relate some sense of the memory by explaining what the trigger means to you, but photos don’t have the same meaning to others as they do to you.)

    The Danes last blog post..20090417.teaParty

  • Alan Noble

    @Corinne

    Good call on the tagging. I don’t think I was even aware that you could delete a tag that someone else had created for you.

    @Dane
    After all these years, can’t you just assume that I have good evidence behind my argument and leave it at that? Blah!

    But seriously, I knowingly left out quite a bit of evidence and reasoning in this post since I wanted it to be a readable length rather than another one of my notorious two-part articles. Let me see if I can qualify and support my case here, briefly, so I can get back to other work:

    First, let me point out that I said these memories can be trivialized, not that they must be necessarily, which is an important distinction. I suppose what I was trying to get at is that I am concerned that social networks encourage us to blur or even erase the distinction between public and private life. Most of us have a good understanding that it is important and valuable to have a private life which is shared by a select group of close friends and family. I think the examples you gave of sharing wedding photos (hundres of friends) and birthday photos (forty friends) reveals the point I was trying to get at. You understood that these were different events with varing levels of intimacy. For whatever reason, the wedding was more of a public event than your birthday, and so you acted accordingly online by limiting your friends exposure to the photos of these events. Likewise, the naming of your child was made into a game, since this name will be an incedibly public thing, whereas pictures of your child’s first birthday might be limited to only a select group of family and friends.

    But I’m not sure that quite answers your call for evidence that the memories become trivialized. Let me try again:

    1. It potentially trivializes them by shifting the priority from the experience itself to the anticipation of sharing the memories. As you point out, these are not mutually exclusive, which is why I would say that this is only a potential problem; however, insofar as any particular memory’s lasting impact comes through the amount of comments we receive on the posted pictures/video/note, our understanding of the importance and value of that memory and future memories will be altered so that we may conceive of the experience primarily in terms of its popularity. Now obviously I don’t want to overstate my case here; I certainly don’t believe that this trivialization will always occur or will necessarily have some disastorious effect on our culture, but neither do I want to underestimate this issue.

    2. In those cases were we are undiscriminatingly posting “triggers” of our memories for the general public to see, we may trivialize them by failing to recognize the value of private experience. Again, this certainly does not apply to all events, but there are many experiences that we have that are valuable to us precisely because they are exclusive, or mostly exclusive experiences that we share with a select group of people. Again, I’d refer back to your examples of your wedding and your birthday party. With these events in particular, the act of posting pictures only for all to see trivializes the memory by turning what was an exclusive, unique experience into a public display.

    Does that help?

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    I’m sure you may have evidence, but the idea just seems so weird to me that I can’t come close to figuring it out. It kinda sounds like the photo-steals-the-soul belief (is that real or just a suburban legend).

    With regard to #1: That seems a judgment of valuation that I’m not comfortable making. Is there a reason that experiencing something for the sake of the experience is better than experiencing it for the sake of what it will mean to the larger body of others? Or is there a reason that weighting an experience in such a way trivializes the experience?

    You’re careful to note that you mean can instead of will, but I’m not even sure how sharing a memory can trivialize it.

    I do believe that there are such things as private matters, but I don’t believe that trivialization is the thing at stake in indiscriminately sharing those private experiences. Propriety and confidence come to mind, but trivialization is something I’m having a hard time seeing.

    With regard to #2: It’s funny that you use my examples of unshackling experiences to share them broadly to show how I privatized those experiences. While its true that my wedding and birthday featured limited attendance, that wasn’t the case because of either desire for privacy or fear of trivializing important events in my life. More it was due to spacial and financial considerations. I would have been happy to have the state of California celebrate my 21st birthday and wedding, but that just wasn’t feasible.
    _____________________

    Basically, when I post pictures of something, this is the reason: Wow, here’s some pictures of something that’s important to me. If I put these up, then people who are interested in me can a) have their own related experience to the one I had (one that I was uniquely able to provide for them), thereby fostering closer relationship and community, and b) get to know me just a little bit clearer, thereby fostering closer relationship and community.

    The Danes last blog post..20090417.teaParty

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    p.s. just wanted to say that the image for this article is freaking me out.

    The Danes last blog post..20090417.teaParty

  • wendy

    I think the image has been trivialized by its very presence on this site.

  • http://alexbranning.com Alex Branning

    Alan, I agree with you that we should be careful to not post thoughts, photos or links that could shed a bad light on our Christian family and/or our Lord.

    I am in agreement with The Dane on this one, I really can’t think of a reason why we shouldn’t share a memory – that’s what these social networking sites are for! In my case, I have family all across America on Facebook and Twitter, and there is no way for me to keep in touch with all of them through pre-Twitter/Facebook means of communication (i.e.: phone calls or letters). However, through the power of Twitter/Facebook I can share my daily activities, updates on my life and the cute things that Ali does with all of them – at once! The ability to share and post our memories online has really brought me closer together with my family (and long-lost friends!) who I otherwise could not stay in touch with.

  • Asa

    Great article. I just have one thing to add. Even though a social networking site has noble intentions and has smart developers, that does not meant hat your privacy will always be protected. For example, I have written private notes on Facebook that people outside of my ‘exclusive list’ were able to see for some reason.

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