Communication Technology: Obfuscator of the Public and the Private?

Posted: October 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

 Communication Technology: Obfuscator of the Public and the Private?

Using my technological umbilical cord, I looked up the origin of the word persona. Interestingly, it is derived from Latin and it means ‘mask’. In our current vernacular, we use the term to describe which version of ourselves we present and in what circumstances – in essence, our mask of choice. Current online communications technology directly impacts on our public/private personae in relation to privacy implications, since what once may have been private musing, might now be global fodder for comment and criticism.

Reflecting further on my online persona, I have explored to a greater depth the writings of Sherry Turkle, a renowned social scientist and psychologist. Her recent talk at the TED2012 forums, and synthesized at TED Blog | Places we don’t want to go: Sherry Turkle at TED2012 resonated deeply with me, in part, I am sure, because it fits my selective perceptions of the impacts of technology on our relationships and ultimately, ourselves.  Therefore, I am going to proffer the hypothesis that the use of social media technology is the precursor to a myriad of online privacy violations.

As I noted in my last post, Turkle believes that we have become so intrinsically connected to our tech devices, that they have altered who we are and how readily we disclose to those around us. I agree – I think that we are fundamentally changing the way that we relate to others – and that in turn, changes the “face” that we choose to present to those with whom we interact.  Information sharing that once was in-person and private is now texted, blogged, posted or Tweeted.  As noted by Bradley, (2012), “Social media, however, has rapidly fostered an environment in which individuals are able and, it seems, entirely willing to broadcast information about themselves, their friends, their families, and their activities to a broad public”(2012). Additionally, notes Boyd and Ellison, (2208) our idea of behavioural norms in using social networking, is guided by our imagined belief as to the audience or the “Friends” with whom we share. Does this imagined audience reflect reality and does it impact how we share?

Social networking activity, Turkle believes, limits our ability to self-reflect based on the responses that we get from others. She states that “we’re designing tech that will give us the illusion of friendship without the demands of companionship” and that this is “changing how people think of themselves…I share therefore, I am” (Turkle, 2012).

Tiger Woods and Congressman Anthony Weiner might have been better served, not sharing; at least not in a domain that is inherently public. Consider a tweet that is made in the heat of the moment; the Alberta Wildrose leader, for example, who tweeted that the recalled meat in the recent tainted meat scandal, which is potentially infected with E.coli, might be suitable for the homeless – an unfortunate and ill-considered gaffe, which is now public and has gone viral. She might be currently considering a more prudent way to manage her public persona.

One could argue that the ability that tech communication offers to edit ourselves, to clean up what we say, to avoid the pitfalls of mistakes and our hesitations; the very ‘humanness’ of  F2F communication (Turkle, 2012) , is an advantage in the management of our public online persona. However, a recent article, for example, ( finds that 88% of sexting activities that teens assume are private conversations, are uploaded onto other websites. This removes the ability to edit or “digitally clean” from our control and places it squarely in view of the public domain.

Bruce, in his blog post, Bruce’s Education: Rage against the machine references the recent online controversy regarding the tragic suicide of Amanda Todd (herself a victim of image transfer and public bullying), as he notes the vigilante-style outing of those who posted disparaging remarks on Amanda’s Facebook memorial site.  He remarks on the surprising transparency of the virtual world, and comments that in a very public fashion “it appears that those who have been surveiled have begun manipulating the machine themselves;” another element in the evolution of our changing socio-cultural norms. Bruce also provided a link Bruce’s Education: Little devices to a very timely radio broadcast where the guest reflected on how the devices and their marketing impacted our identity and has the potential to “change our personhood”. She believes that the devices serve in part, to change our identity by convincing us our lives are more task-based apps– and less relationship-based interactions– and that the devices amplify this tendency.

As I try to conclude my stream of consciousness regarding the impact of personhood/personae/privacy, I am reading a comment by Lyon (2008); “technological systems themselves are neither the cause nor the sum of what surveillance is today.” Hmm – extrapolating that comment to the issue of social media and privacy, I find this whole process has been quite instructive.

Therefore, my conclusion is that the devices themselves are not innately problematic. Where we have a gap is in the development of the appropriate social and cultural behaviours that govern our use of them. The issue is that speed with which new technologies are developed and adopted has exceeded the concurrent establishment of social norms.

In fact, the very public nature of the some of the more spectacular public transgressions, might ultimately serve in an educational role – at least in the teaching of what not to do.





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