Canaries in the Privacy Coal Mine

“Does this picture make me look unprofessional?” “Who might see this post about my ex?” “What will my boss think if I tweet about who I voted for?” - questions like these worried many of the people I interviewed for my research on the problems they had with their personal technologies. For some, the vigilance necessary to participate in social media spaces while maintaining control over their how they present themselves is a new frustration of contemporary social life. However for others, constant self-monitoring and awareness of other’s prejudices and assumptions has long been a feature of everyday life. Erving Goffman (1963) pointed out that people who belong to groups with stigmatized identities (like members of racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities) and those who are physically stigmatized (like the disabled) are often burdened with the work of self-monitoring and vigilance in ways that may seem foreign and unimaginable to members of more powerful groups. So, while concerns about privacy and control over one’s personal information are now spread across demographic categories in the U.S.[1], to many members of minority groups, these worries are old news.

The need to craft and tailor our self-presentations to different audiences is a constant feature of social life. However, social media spaces complicate this process by “collapsing multiple contexts and bringing together commonly distinct audiences”.[2] This feature of mainstream social media platforms makes them environments where missteps, mistakes, and social blunders are all too easy to make. On the other side of the screen, these same features make these environments productive spaces for surveillance by colleges, employers, advertisers, and other powerful gatekeepers of opportunity.

However easy it is for anyone to make mistakes in these environments, the consequences of these missteps aren’t the same for everyone. boyd found that people who face high stakes surveillance of their social media presence develop creative strategies for taking control over the information others can find out about them, including daily de-activation and re-activation of their profiles, and deleting evidence of all interactions.[3] Research has shown that due to the perception of high stakes surveillance, racial minorities also may have different practices of sharing and disclosing personal information in face-to-face social situations[4]. The experience of increased scrutiny and surveillance in both face-to-face and online context is a burden that falls heavier on the shoulders of stigmatized groups, and in turn, affects the ways they think about sharing and controlling information about themselves.

The combination of increased self-monitoring and vigilance that members of minority groups have to do in their everyday face-to-face social interactions and the increased surveillance they (and increasingly many of us) face in online contexts creates a crucible in which attitudes and practices of privacy are formed.  Do members of these groups develop a “taste for privacy” (Lewis, Kaufman, Christakis 2008) in different ways then members of more privileged groups? What can we learn about the effects of constant surveillance from the groups that bear the unequal burden of it?

The Pew Internet & American Life project found that people with incomes in the lowest category (under $30,000) were less trusting of the security of their phone conversations and e-mail than people with higher incomes; and they were particularly untrusting of advertisers to protect their information. This group was also less likely to say that the content of their calls, e-mails, and shopping histories were “highly sensitive” information when compared to people at higher incomes.[5] So, even though they didn’t see the content of their activities as very sensitive, they were still less trusting of existing policies and authorities to protect their information and have their best interests at heart. While this study did not focus on racial and ethnic differences within these categories, African-American households are over-represented in this income bracket.[6]

However, perceptions of privacy and security of information don’t only affect the ways that people think about their online banking and shopping, it also affects the ways they think about their interactions with friends and family and the risks of intimacy in a connected age. Lacey, a 37-year-old, African-American administrative assistant in Washington, D.C. illustrates these risks when she explained to me why she refuses to participate in any kind of social media:

“I guess it ties into it, the like Ray Rice thing, or the Beyoncé on the elevator. Somebody sold that footage to somebody. Where I'm thinking I'm just minding my business and someone comes along, whose motives aren’t the purest, they want money, so they want to sell their soul and sell mine for $100,000.00 That I have an issue with. I just don’t want to give anyone access to me. I don’t want to be on somebody’s Instagram, and tweeting and all that, I don’t know you and I don’t trust you. You got to get with the people that you do know. I just like to be able to control the access that someone has to me… I just try to put myself in a situation where certain things don’t happen. Certain things maybe, I'm on an elevator, I can’t avoid what happens. But there are some situations; I think 95% of things you can control. ”

Lacey does a kind of “risk calculus” that weighs the benefits of participating in social media against the risks of engaging in this kind of intimacy in a networked public. Her mistrust of others getting “access” to her through her interactions with friends and family members on social media outweighs the emotional benefits she may get from tweeting and Instagramming, and lead her to withdraw from social media. For her, being able to protect herself from dangerous others is contingent on her ability to control what people know about her, and the surest way to do that is to avoid using these services all together. The outcome of Lacey’s calculus is similar to many low-income, urban-dwelling interviewees for my research, especially those who’re members of racial and ethnic minority groups. While only a few decided to completely withdraw from social media as a result, many detailed their uneasiness and the vigilance necessary to participate in social media, but also “keep people out of my business”[7]. While many more privileged interviewees detailed their excitement about the ways participating in social media expanded their social networks and allowed them to maintain friendships with distant friends and family, this same aspect of these environments made less privileged interviewees feel vulnerable to others in ways that just weren’t worth the risk.[8]

While these problems are experienced by many as new, unheralded changes in our social lives, these are not new burdens to all. As recipients of more than their fair share of monitoring, surveillance, and uninformed assumptions about their character, and worthiness, low-status workers, racial minorities[9], and other stigmatized peoples have been inculcated with the kind of vigilance that is increasingly required of everyone who lives their lives online. The problems that these groups face are worthy of understanding and action on their own merits. However, they also offer some insight into the ways that the dynamics of social media are likely to shape behavior and interactions across categories. 

[1] Madden, Mary. 2014.“Public Perceptions of Privacy and Security in the Post-Snowden Era”, The Pew Internet and American Life project, 

[2] Marwick, Alice and danah boyd. 2010. “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.” New Media and Society 13(1):114–33, P.115.

[3] boyd, danah. 2014. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[4] Phillips, Katherine, Nancy Rothbard, and Tracy Dumas. 2009. “To Disclose or Not to Disclose? Status Distance and Self-Disclosure in Diverse Environments.” Academy of Management Review 34(4):710–32.

[5] Madden, 2014.

[6] 20% of households that make under $30,000 a year are African-American, while African-Americans make up only 13% of the population. 74% are white households.

[7] Quoted from interview with Michael, a 31-year-old, African-American warehouse stocker in Washington, D.C.

[8] 50% (11/22) of African-American and Hispanic interviewees brought up social media leaving them vulnerable to others as a negative aspect of their personal technology use, while 13% (8/58) of white respondents did. The white respondents who mentioned this as a concern were either in sexual minority groups, and/or had jobs characterized by lots of surveillance (both low-status & high status jobs).

[9] This is not to suggest that members of stigmatized groups, especially African-Americans, do not face unique challenges when expressing themselves or otherwise engaging in online forums. The undue pressure to represent the perspective of one’s entire group, anonymous and brutal trolling, and many other hurdles stand in the way of these groups’ equal participation in online spaces.