In order to gain an understanding of how we are perceived online, we need the equivalent of a 'digital mirror', said MIT Media Laboratory's Judith Donath at a day two South By South West Interactive panel entitled 'Is Privacy Dead or Just Very Confused?'
Led by Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd, the panel - which also included Siva Vaidhyanathan, Associate Professor at the University of Virginia, and Alice Marwick, PhD Candidate at New York University – grappled with the complex issues of privacy in a digital age.
Having spent time talking to teenagers about their perception of privacy, Boyd says she found that the very notion of privacy had been "ruptured" by new technology. "What does it mean when you are on Facebook or MySpace and you're trying to negotiate different audiences," she said. "How do you negotiate privacy when you don't have control over how far your information spreads?"
Siva Vaidhyanathan, who is writing a book called The Googlization of Everything, said that it's wrong to believe that privacy is the opposite of publicity: "Just because you or I puts up 100 or 200 aspects of our lives on publicly accessible sites, that doesn't mean that we don't care about the 101st.
"It doesn't mean that we're not just as concerned about what we don't share. And so the very notion that a lot of us are over-sharers doesn't necessarily undermine or mitigate the general concern for individuals being able to control and influence how they are represented in the world."
Alice Marwick is writing a dissertation on the effects of social media on social status. She says there's a real value in putting this public information out there: "I've interviewed CEOs who said they would never hire anyone without a Facebook profile, that if they are going to be hiring someone to work in the technology sector they expect them to be familiar with the latest technologies."
Marwick adds that there is also a great social value to becoming a part of online groups and making friends online: "There's a sense of social support which you get from this publicness, which in some cases can be really profound. I've had friends who've gone through very difficult things and they've put out into the world 'this is the thing I am going through, I'm looking for online support' and they've got very real emotional support."
We should recognise the value of these practices, says Marwick, "but at the same time we also have to recognise that the more information you put out there about yourself the more useful that is to corporate interests."
Judith Donath said she approaches these issues as a designer and a theorist: "A lot of the design work that I do with my students involves doing social visualisations. I'm very interested in how we can things like all the conversations you've had, your email, etc., and make visualisations of you that function as portraits but instead of saying this is a portrait you've based on the light reflected off your face, it's about what you've done, what you've said."
Donath adds that online, history is equivalent to the body – "it's something that you really start to value over the time you build it up because part of the issues around identity online have been that it's been so ephemeral and so lightweight that it's not very meaningful, and that in some ways by creating this body out of history we establish some kind of social control and that notion of control is really where these issues around the public and the private come in."
Public space is a space where there is some kind of common norm, explains Donath. It's where there are expectations about our behaviour, and the idea of a private space is in opposition to that.
"In this case public could be a public square or it could be a public as small as your family," says Donath. "Because of the rapid changes in technology this opens up a huge number of really interesting questions around privacy... One of the biggest contemporary issues around privacy is around things like Facebook where everybody is suddenly aware of the notion of how many different public faces they have. You have a public face for the people at work and a public face for different groups of friends, and when you're writing status updates on Facebook all of a sudden you have to be doing it with one large audience in mind."
This makes Facebook fascinating, says Donath, as you get to see people's faces that are normally private to you. And while this not might be a big deal for many people, it's representative of the larger issues we'll be facing about how many different personas we keep and how we manage them, she adds, explaining that online it's very easy for the walls between the personas to be collapsed via tools such as Facebook and Google searches.
"When we do these visualisations it's always hard to know how others see you," says Donarth. "Already, if you are out looking for a job someone can look at your face and have a pretty good idea of what gender or race you are but they're not allowed to use that information, so there's a whole set of legal issues around that, but there's also the question now of how can we start developing the technologies to give ourselves effectively a mirror of our information self.
"At least now we can look in the bathroom mirror and say 'oh, I do have spinach in my teeth', but we don't have the digital equivalent of that, and one of the things we really need is this kind of mirror so we can see what kind of trails we've left behind, what a can marketer gather about us, and what the different personalities are that we put up.
"We also need to figure out how to design different types of online space so that you have an intuitive feel for how public it is, so you know how to moderate your behaviour for these different types of private and public spaces."