The Transformation of Users’ Relationship to Privacy in the Paradoxical Context of Facebook

by Mary Jane Kwok Choon, PhD Student, Faculté de Communication, Université du Québec à Montréal

Digital social networks provide the opportunity for users to participate creatively and actively in the production of content. But, on these sites, the collection of users’ data is achieved through the mechanisms of institutional surveillance. The Facebook platform is one of such sites, and it has been known to put the privacy of its users at risk. On the matter of the practices of institutional and interpersonal surveillance, several analysts argue that Facebook represents an emblematic figure of the society of control. However, there is also a need to acknowledge the presence of a privacy paradox: users engage in self-disclosure practices even while being aware of the risks. It is not unusual to observe in the News Feed pictures that depict individuals in states of semi-nudity and involved in compromising situations. This dissemination of intimate details of users reveals their extimacy and underlines the transformation of users’ relationship to privacy within the paradoxical context of the platform.

Scholars such as Lewis and al. (2008) argue that social influence is responsible for the mimesis in privacy practices among students on Facebook. Moreover, Boyd and Hargittai (2010) showed that the privacy practices of students changed over time, within a period where the site has experienced various architectural shifts. The frequency of use and the media literacy of users were factors that influenced the activation and the changes made in privacy settings on Facebook. While these factors are mobilized to explain the privacy paradox, they do not enable us to understand the collective engagement of users in self-disclosure practices. By drawing from these findings, I posit that there is a transformation of users’ social representations of privacy through the appropriation process on Facebook.

My research discusses the ways in which the users’ relationships to privacy are being transformed on Facebook. I argue that these processes should be studied through a lens of social representations of privacy, in light of similar patterns of privacy practices that have been articulated lately. There is also a dialectical relationship that exists between the expansion of surveillance that is being observed on the site and the extimacy of users. In that sense, we are to wonder: are we in the presence of the practice of soft surveillance, which is responsible for producing docile bodies as Lyon (2006) said and would therefore serve to form a less critical vision of surveillance? How far does this transformation express the individual’s intention to play with the gaze of surveillance? In an era of cyber-surveillance expansion, it is therefore relevant to examine both the influence of institutional surveillance and the interpersonal surveillance in the transformation of users’ social representations of privacy. Facebook induces a specific conception of privacy through its architecture, and proceeds to a normalization of interpersonal surveillance, which thereby confers social relations a central role in the appropriation of shared representations of privacy by users.

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Second Life: Power to the People or Virtual Surveillance Society?

by Jennifer Martin, Doctoral candidate, University of Western Ontario

With a population of over one million registered and 805 thousand regular users and an economy valued at over $26 million USD, there is little surprise that surveillance has been brought into the virtual world of Second Life to monitor its many residents and their in-world interests.  Yet, this surveillance does not stop at the world’s creators, and is deployed by ordinary residents who seek to protect themselves, their interests, businesses, and property from others. Because almost all in-world content is user-generated and users retain a significant amount of freedom over the virtual world, there is room for residents to engage their own surveillance practices. For as little as a few dollars, residents can become owners of in-world technology that relays conversations, take detailed pictures, and tracks the in-world whereabouts of other residents. This work-in-progress paper will explore residents’ understandings of Second Life surveillance technologies and their associated risks. In doing so, it will argue that although there are perceived benefits to more widely accessible surveillance, the uses of these technologies and the lack of widespread awareness of the multiple forms of and risks associated with surveillance undermines these possibilities.

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Calm Surveillance: The Cultural Imagination of Ubiquitous Surveillance Technologies

by Kristen Veel, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen

In his seminal writings on ubiquitous computing from the 1990s, information scientist Mark Weiser presents the idea of technologies that become so integrated in the daily meshwork of our lives that they no longer draw attention to themselves as technologies: “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it” (Weiser “The Computer for the 21st Century”). It is this conception of invisible technology, which he develops into the notion of calm technology (Weiser & Brown). Technological “calmness” seems a necessity when imagining an everyday world in which technology pervades our bodies and environments, embedded in even the most ordinary experiences from the motion-detecting lights that switch on when you enter the public toilets, to the cat flap that reads the chip in your pet’s neck and keeps unwanted cats out of your house. If such a world is to function smoothly it seems that technology has to become invisible, it has to function without drawing attention to itself, otherwise the cognitive load would simply be overpowering. This means that large amounts of everyday decisions are being made automatically, below the threshold of our conscious attention, and yet have a significant impact on our everyday lives. This paper proposes the term calm surveillance to describe ubiquitous surveillance technologies, which do not draw attention to themselves as surveillance technologies, but have a notably effect on our daily lives and thus warrant a closer scrutiny. The implications of calm surveillance are explored through a range of recent artworks, films and novels, which in different way employ, challenge and negotiate calm surveillance. In particular I shall be looking at the art project CVDazzle by Adam Harvey (2010), Catherine O’Flynn’s novel What Was Lost (2007), and the film A Scanner Darkly (2006). In different ways and in diverging aesthetic genres, these works explore, on the one hand, fundamental questions of attention and selection criteria – how do we distinguish relevant from irrelevant information? And what are the implications when these selections are performed by technology at a level below our conscious attention? On the other hand, artworks such as these bring out the affective and emotional implications of calm surveillance for human beings living in such environments—highlighting and questioning its impact on our way of experiencing, representing, and interacting with the world.

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