The (in)Visible Subject: Power, Privacy and Social Networking

Posted by Rebecca Schild at Feb 26, 2010 08:10 AM |
In this entry, I will argue that the interplay between privacy and power on social network sites works ultimately to subject individuals to the gaze of others, or to alternatively render them invisible. Individual choices concerning privacy preferences must, therefore, be informed by the intrinsic relationship which exists between publicness/privateness and subjectivity/obscurity.

The Architecture of Openness


Through a Google search or a quick scan of Facebook, people today are able to gain “knowledge” on others in a way never once possible.  The ability to search and collect information on individuals online only continues to improve as online social networks grow and search engines become more comprehensive.  Social networks, and the social web more broadly, has worked to fundamentally alter the nature of personal information made available online.  Social  networking services today enable the average person, with web access, to publish information through a “social profile”.   Personal information made available online is now communicative, narrative and biographic.  Consequentially, social profiles have become rich containers of personal information that can be searched, indexed and analyzed.

The architecture of the social web further encourages users to enclose volumes of personally identifiable information.  Most social network sites embrace the “ethos of openness” as, by default, most have relaxed privacy settings.  While most sites give users relative control over the disclosure of personal information, services such as MySpace, Facebook and Live Journal are far ahead of the black and white public/private privacy models of sites such as Bebo and Orkut.  Bebo, for example, only allows users to disclose information to “friends” or “everyone”, granting little granularity for diverse privacy preferences.  MySpace and Facebook, on the other hand, have made room for “friends of friends”, among other customizable group preferences.  All networking sites also consider certain pieces of basic information publicly available, without privacy controls.  On most sites, this includes name, photograph, gender and location, and list of friends.  Okrut, however, considers far more information to public—leaving the political views and religions of its’ members public.  This openness leaves the individual with little knowledge or control over how their information is viewed, and subsequently used.

Search functionality has also increased the visibility of individuals outside their immediate social network.  For example, sites such Facebook and LinkedIn index user profiles through Google search.  Furthermore, all social network sites index their users, effectively allowing profiles to be searched by other users through basic registration data, such as first and last name or registered email address.  While most services allow users to remove their profiles from external search engines, they are often not able to effectively control internal searches.  Orkut, for example, does not allow users to disable internal searches according to their first and last names.  LinkedIn and MySpace also maintains that users be searchable by their email addresses.

Through this open architecture and search functionality, social network sites have rendered individuals more “visible” vis-à-vis one another.  The social web has effectively altered the spatial dimensions of our social lives as grounded, embodied experience becomes ubiquitous and multiply experienced.  Privacy, in the online social milieu, assumes greater fluidity and varied meaning—transcending spatially constructed understandings of the notion. 

While the architecture of social networking sites encourages users to be more “public”, heightened control, or “more privacy” is generally suggested as the panacea to privacy concerns.  However, the public/private binary of privacy talk often fails to capture the complex nexus which exists between privacy and power in the networked ecosystem.  Privacy preferences on social networks, and the consequences thereof, are effectively shaped and influenced by structures of power.  In this entry, I will argue that the interplay between privacy and power works ultimately to expose individuals to the subjective gaze of others, or to render them invisible.  In this respect, individual choices concerning privacy preferences must be informed by the intrinsic relationship between notions of publicness/privateness and subjectivity/obscurity.

Power and Subjectivity

The searchable nature of the social profile allows others to quickly and easily aggregate information on one another.  As privacy scholar Daniel Solve notes, social searching may be of genuine intent – individuals use social networking services to locate old friends, and to connect with current colleagues.  However, curiosity does not always assume such innocence, as fishing expeditions for personal information may serve the purpose of judging individuals based perception of the social profile.  The relatively power of search and open information can be harnessed to weed out potential job applicants, or to rank college applicants.  Made possible through the architecture of the web and social constructions of power, individuals may be subjected to the deconstructive gaze of superiors. 

The architecture of social networking sites significantly compliments this nexus between privacy and power.  As individual behavior and preferences become more transparent, the act of surveillance is masked behind the ubiquity and anonymity of online browsing. Drawing on Foucault’s panopticism, social networks make for the “containerization” of social space –allowing the powerful to subjectively hierarchize and classify individuals in relation to one another [1].  This practice becomes particularly troublesome online, as individuals are often unable to control how they are constructed by others in cyberspace. 

Perfect control is difficult to guarantee in an ecosystem where personal information is easily searched, stored, copied, indexed, and shared.  In this respect, the privacy controls of social networking sites are greatly illusory.  Googling an individual’s name, for example, may not reveal the full social profile of an individual, but may unveil dialogue involving the individual in a public discussion group.  The searchable nature of personal information on the web has both complicated and undesirable consequences for privacy of the person for, what I believe, to be two main reasons.

The first point refers to what Daniel J. Solve describes as the “virtue of knowing less”.  Individuals may be gaining more “information” on others through the internet, but this information is often insufficient for judging one’s character as it only communicates one dimension of an individual.  In her work, Helen Nissenbaum emphasizes the importance contextual integrity holds for personal information.  When used outside its intended context, information gathered online may not be useful for accurately assessing an individual.  In addition, the virtual gaze is void of the essential components of human interaction necessary to effectively understand and situate each other.  As Solve notes, certain information may distort judgment of another person, rather than increasing its accuracy.

Secondly, the act of surveillance through social networks work to undermine privacy and personhood, as individuals seek to situate others as “fixed texts” [2].  Due to the complex nature of the social self, such practice is undesirable.  Online social networks are socially constructed spaces, with diverse meanings assigned by varied users.  One may utilize a social network service to build and maintain professional relationships, while another may use it as an intimate space to share with close friends and family.  James Rachels’ theory of privacy notes that privacy is important, as it allows individuals to selectively disclose information and to engage in behaviors appropriate and necessary for maintaining diverse personal relationships.  Drawing on the work of performance theorists such as Judith Butler, we can assert that identity is not fixed or unitary, but is constituted by performances that are directed at different audiences [3].  Sociologist Erving Goffman also notes that we “live our lives as performers… [and] play many different roles and wear many different masks” [4].  Individuals, therefore, are inclined to perform themselves online according to their perceived audiences.  It is the audience, or the social graph, which constructs the context that, in turn, informs individual behavior.

Any attempt to situate and categorize the individual becomes particularly problematic in the context of social networks, where information is often not intended for the purpose for which it is being used.  Due to the complex nature of human behavior, judgments of character based on online observation only effectively capture one side of the “complicated self”.  As Julie Cohen writes, the “law often fails to capture the mutually constitutive interactions between self and culture, the social constructions of systems of knowledge, and the interplay between systems of knowledge and systems of power”.  Because the panoptic gaze is decentralized and anonymous in the networked ecosystem, individuals will often bear little knowledge on how their identities are being digitally deconstructed and rewired.  Most importantly, much of this judgment will occur without individual consent or knowledge—emphasizing the transparent nature of the digital self. 

Power and (in)visibility

In response to the notion that the architecture of the social web may render individuals transparent to the gaze of others, the need for more “control” over privacy on social network sites has captured the public imagination.  Facebook’s abrupt privacy changes, for example, have received widespread attention in the blogosphere and even by governments.  While popular privacy discourse often continues to fixate on the public/private binary—Facebook’s questionable move towards privacy decontrol has raised important questions of power and privilege.

A recent blog post by danah boyd nicely touches upon the dynamics of power, public-ness, and privilege in the context of online social networking.  As she notes, “Public-ness has always been a privilege… but now we've changed the equation and anyone can theoretically be public… and seen by millions.  However, there are still huge social costs to being public…the privileged don’t have to worry about the powerful observing them online…but most everyone else does –forcing people into the public eye doesn’t dismantle the structures of privilege and power, but only works to reinforce them” (emphasis added). 

This point touches upon an important idea —that publicity has value.  This nexus between visibility and power is one which unfolds quite clearly in the social media ecosystem.  One’s relevance or significance could, arguably, be measured relative to online visibility.  Many individuals who are seen as “leaders” within their own professional or social circles often maintain public blogs, maintain a herd of followers on Twitter, and often manage large numbers of connections on social network sites.  The more information written by or on an individual online, arguably, the more relevant they appear to in the eyes of their peers and superiors alike.

Power and privilege, however experienced, will be mirrored in the online context.  While the participatory and decentralized nature of Web 2.0 arguably works challenge traditional structures of power, systemic hierarchies and are often reinforced online –as Facebook’s privacy blunders clearly illustrates. The privileged need not worry about the subjective gaze of their superiors, as boyd notes.  Those who may be compromised due to the lack of privateness, however, do.  As boyd goes on to argue, “the privileged get more privileged, gaining from being exposed… and those struggling to keep their lives together are forced to create walls that are constantly torn down around them”.  As public exposure may over often equate to power, we must  critically challenge the assumption that the move towards more privacy control on social networks will best empower its members.

 If publicity can potentially have great value for the individual, the opposite also rings true.  Privacy, as polemic to publicness, alternatively works to diminish the presence of the individual, rendering them invisible or irrelevant within hyper-linked networks.  With greater personal protectionism online, an individual may go unnoticed or unrecognized, fizzling out dully behind their more public peers.  Drawing on social network theory, powerful people can be understood as “supernodes” as they connect more peripheral members of a network.  As Lior Strahilevitz notes, supernodes tend to be better informed than the peripherals, and are most likely to be perceived as “leaders”. 

As the power of the supernode relates to privacy, Strahilevitz states that that “supernodes maintain their privileged status by continuing to serve as information clearinghouses….and, in certain contexts, become supernodes based in part on their willingness to share previously private information about themselves”.  It is within the context of visibility and power that the idea of (in)visibility and powerlessness online unfold.  Those who have most at risk by going public, may chose not to do so. Those with in comfortable positions with considerably less to lose by going public may be inclined to “open up”.  Heightened privacy controls on social network services, therefore, can work to reinforce the very structures of power they seek to dismantle. 

This is not to argue, however, that more privacy is necessarily bad, and that less privacy is good, or that users shouldn’t be selective in their disclosures – to the contrary.  As personal information has become ubiquitous and tools for aggregating information improve, maintaining privacy online becomes more pertinent than ever. However, the concept of privacy will only continue to become increasingly complex as digital networks continue to deconstruct and reconfigure the spatial dimensions of the public and private.  How are we to effectively understand privacy in a social environment which values openness and publicity?  Can the fluid and dynamic self gain visibility online without becoming subject to the gaze of superiors?  Will those who selectively choose friends and carefully disclose personal information fizzle out, while the powerful and less inhibited continue to reassert privilege?  The interplay between power and privacy on the social web is a multiply constitutive and reinforcing synergy –understanding how to effectively strike balance between the right to privacy and self-determination is the challenge ahead.


1. see “Foucault in Cyberspace” by James Boyle

2. Julie Cohen

3. Cohen citing Butler

4. Solve citing Goffman

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