In a paper titled "Vanity or Privacy? Social Media as a Facilitator of Privacy and Trust," to be presented next month at the 2012 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, or (2012 CSCW), Google researcher Jessica Staddon contends that social media facilitates trust and engagement by promoting self-representation and by reflecting community views.
"[W]e present survey evidence that 'vanity' searches are associated with an important privacy need," Staddon writes. "We also present evidence compatible with the conjecture that social annotations in search support privacy by enabling better self-representation and thus more privacy-aware sharing."
"Clean coal," meet "privacy-aware sharing." Let the oxymoron wars begin.
[ Google's effort to promote Google+ appears to be paying off. Read Google Revenue Misses, But Google+ Surges. ]
In order to not reject Staddon's argument outright, let's define privacy in the way Google search defines it:
1. The state or condition of being free from being observed or disturbed by other people.
2. The state of being free from public attention.
Using this definition of privacy offered by Google search, social media just doesn't work. You can have sharing or you can have privacy. You can't have both.
But of course you can't run a social network or social search engine under this regime. That's why the privacy policies of leading Internet companies describe not efforts to safeguard information, but the conditions under which information is shared. Were privacy policies renamed "virginity policies," they'd describe the conditions under which children are begotten rather than practices that preserve chastity.
Staddon did not immediately respond to an email seeking a definition of the term "privacy" as the word applies to her study. But let it suffice to say that "privacy" is a tricky word to define. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, "The term 'privacy' is used frequently in ordinary language as well as in philosophical, political, and legal discussions, yet there is no single definition or analysis or meaning of the term." (As long as you don't type "define:privacy" into Google.)
Staddon's paper concedes that social media can pose privacy problems."The abundance of communication that social media enables clearly can lead to privacy problems, often with severe personal consequences," the paper says. "Jobs have been lost, marriages ended, and court cases won all because of unintended sharing of online social communication."