As social media use has become a mainstream activity, there has been an increasingly polarized public debate about whether or not “privacy” can be dismissed as a relic in the information age. On one side of the debate is what might be called the privacy-is-dead camp. Its adherents take the view that if people are willing to share all manner of personal details about their lives on social networking sites — their physical location, photos of their children, intimate accounts of personal struggles and triumphs — then surely they must have abandoned any reasonable expectation of privacy. Some researchers have suggested that social network users are uniquely unconcerned about privacy; that over time, regular use of social media without any major negative experiences may lessen their concerns about sharing information. Other threads of the privacy-is-dead argument point to the relative ease with which people’s digital footprints and physical whereabouts can now be tracked and the great lengths to which someone must go to protect their anonymity online — or offline.
On the other side, some advocates and scholars argue that the public still cares deeply about their privacy online but those sensitivities have been ill-served by technology companies that stand to profit from more widespread sharing and availability of personal information. Users may be more open with what they share because they don’t adequately understand enough about how their data is stored and used. And just because they are comfortable posting some information publicly does not mean they have quietly surrendered all control over the information they choose to share online.
Yet, social science researchers have long noted a major disconnect in attitudes and practices around information privacy online. When asked, people say that privacy is important to them; when observed, people’s actions seem to suggest otherwise.
“Privacy” has become a powerful keyword, a shorthand tag that gets used to reference a constellation of public attitudes, technical affordances and legal arguments. Yet, the concept is so laden with multiple meanings that any use of the term begs for added specificity and context.
This report addresses several questions about the privacy settings people choose for their social networking profiles, and provides new data about the specific steps users take to control the flow of information to different people within their networks. Because Facebook is by far the most popular social networking platform and the language of “privacy settings” is part and parcel of the Facebook experience, the term “privacy” is used throughout this report to refer to the choices users make to restrict the information they share through their profile.