Privacy on social network sites and its impact on computer-mediated communication

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

22 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. The Concepts of Identity, Face and Privacy in Computer-Mediated Communication
2.1 The Construction of Virtual Identities
2.2 Putting on a Face
2.3 Privacy Concerns

3. Privacy in Social Network Sites
3.1 A Self-Contradictory Issue
3.2 A Note on the Term “Friends”
3.3 The Facebook Case Study

4. The Impact of Privacy on CMC on Social Network Sites
4.1 A Matter of Choosing the Appropriate Channel
4.2 Text Type Examples
4.2.1 Example 1
4.2.2 Example 2
4.2.3 Example 3

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

These days, modern technology has had a strong impact on people’s everyday lives. A relatively recent phenomenon in the history of computer-mediated communication (CMC) is the enormously spreading popularity of social network sites (SNSs). A diverse and comparably large amount of CMC takes place on these online social networks in which users have to deal with various communication channels and face new challenges in terms of online privacy. In order to find a balance between the exchange of (private) information and keeping a certain degree of privacy, users need to develop a certain communication and language behavior which this paper is going to study.

In this context, Chapter 2 gives a general overview of basic theoretical knowledge in order to find an approach to the impact of privacy on SNS. It regards the creation of virtual identities and examines the concept of face. Furthermore, the chapter examines the phenomenon of privacy concerns related to CMC in general.

The third chapter of this paper focuses on the topic of SNSs considering its self-contradictory nature more closely. On the one hand, they demand private data in order to attract curiosity and interest. But on the other hand, they lack privacy to a certain degree and have, thus, aroused a huge controversy. Moreover, this chapter features an explanation of the term “friends” and its extraordinary use in a SNS-related context. Finally, the chapter considers a recent study by Lewis et al. (2008: 79-100) which looked at the privacy behavior of students on SNS.

Chapter 4 offers and studies some text type examples which describe and explain the use of both transparent and private SNS communication channels. In this context, it approaches a text type example of a status line, a wall post and a private message. Eventually, it tries to find correlations between the users’ choice of a particular communication channel and the privacy degree of the individual message. Employing these methods, this paper studies the impact of privacy of CMC and related to SNSs in particular. It tries to answer the question how strong privacy concerns affect the SNS communication behavior of individual users.

2. The Concepts of Identity, Face and Privacy in Computer-Mediated Communication

CMC on the internet strongly challenges its users’ creativity and allows a variety of choices concerning one’s identity through a wide range of available options. Thus, in CMC, distinct features of identity and face evolve which have a strong effect on the issue of privacy. Therefore, an individual introductory examination of these concerns becomes a mandatory method to be utilized before the topic of privacy in SNSs can be approached more particularly.

The fairly straightforward example of people who use multiple e-mail addresses underlines the necessity of a distinct description and consideration concerning identity, face and privacy. Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), IRC channels, Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) or, more recently, SNSs as well as Instant Messaging (IM) broaden every user’s possibilities of choosing, adjusting and even switching their online self-presentation the way they desire. Nevertheless, this relative freedom of choice coincides with high risks due to anonymity, unreliability and even identity fraud as well as shadow identities.

2.1 The Construction of Virtual Identities

Although definitions of the termidentityexist in large numbers, it is convenient and even necessary to construct an appropriate description of the term for the purpose of this paper. Generally, Castells (2000: 22) understands identity as

“the process by which a social actor recognizes itself and constructs meaning primarily on the basis of a given cultural attribute or set of attributes, to the exclusion of a broader reference to other social structures”.

This citation considers self-recognition but lacks the explanation that the concept of identity also includes how we are perceived by others. In terms of CMC and identity construction, a more narrow focus on the perception of others becomes appropriate since the internet and its communication channels offer such a wide range of possible identity alterations. Wood and Smith (2001: 47) note that the process of conveying a particularly intended reflection of ourselves to others is called “self-presentation” and this paper is going to stick to this term.

Most of the people who do not have any experience with the use of CMC or the internet in general or those who lack familiarity with the concept of it would probably wonder why there is such a thing as an online identity. Usually, they would assumingly claim, there is no need for a second identity beside the real-life one. At first glance, this assumption sounds rather justified. A plausible explanation for the existence of an online identity is the concept oftelepresencewhich is “the extent to which one feels present in the mediated environment, rather than in the immediate physical environment” (Wood and Smith 2001: 50). This degree of reality perception, of course, strongly depends on the individual but it also heavily relies on the level of vividness and interactivity of the regarded medium. Apparently, the internet is a medium which has to offer both vividness and interactivity in a major way. Therefore, it has to be considered a medium with a high degree oftelepresencecreating almost unlimited space for the construction and adjustment of virtual identities.

Obviously, there are a number of further differences between communicating an identity in real life and presenting it online through CMC. Face-to-face communication offers people the chance to be in command of how other people perceive them up to a certain degree (Wood and Smith 2001: 52). Throughout the history of humanity, playing with identity has always been popular regarding for instancegender-swappingon the stage during the Shakespearean era (Ibid. 52-53). But other than in face-to-face communication, CMC offers a much more thorough management of identity aspects which explains the popularity of online identity play. Beside the above mentioned high degree oftelepresence, the internet offers certain anonymity and lacks direct control of a person’s identity features presented online. Thus, Amichai-Hamburger (2005: 25) appropriately speaks of a “protected Internet environment” which invites for identity construction and adjustment.

2.2 Putting on a Face

In order to learn about the manner of online identity behavior, one needs to grasp the meaning of the concept of face. Referring to the theatrical metaphor of sociologist Erving Goffman, Wood and Smith (2001: 53-54) remark that everyday life can be compared to an acting performance on stage. People adjust to playing particular roles by putting on a certain face when they are in public. The pattern of sticking to those behaviors and attitudes that belong to one particular face is referred to asface-work(Ibid. 54). This plays an important role since people steadily try to fulfill the obligations and expectations of the public related to one particular face. Otherwise, they risk violating the image of their role.

Transferring these ideas to CMC, there exist countless numbers of situations in which CMC users play with their online identity. For example, Wood and Smith (2001: 54) entitle text-based forums such as MUDs as “identity workshops”. In the theater-related meaning of the term, an identity workshop means a place in which actors are allowed to try out different roles. In CMC, MUDs allow their users to alter and experiment with their identities and even to switch from one to another. The availability and emergence of such multiple roles display a distinct characteristic of CMC since identities are communicated only through language (Ibid.).

Reasons for putting on various faces online exist in large number. First of all, online role-playing lacks limits and predetermined restrictions of society. Hence, people are able to create those identities in an online environment that they could not achieve in real life (Wood and Smith 2001: 54). Such an experience can help people “seeing the familiar through unfamiliar eyes” (Ibid.) which is termed asdepaysement.

Another reason for the popularity of online role-playing is the increased control people have of their roles on the internet. In particular, the internet has no limits concerning the choice of gender, ethnicity and other nonverbal determinants for an online identity (Wood and Smith 2001: 54). Even SNSs which heavily rely on pictures can be easily faked since the internet lacks access to a person’s actual appearance. Thus, SNSs provide perfect playgrounds for online identity play and for putting on a desired or even multiple faces.

With the lack of a physical appearance online, language is the most important communication feature for online identities (Wood and Smith 2001: 55). It “is thus the primary vehicle for establishing one’s own and perceiving another’s online persona” (Ibid.). This idea is reflected in the concept of anavatar(Ibid.) which is, for instance, comparably popular among IM users. In IM, the avatar is a user-controlled, animated reflection of the user’s online identity which gets displayed next to the user’s name in the messaging window. Another example for a personified and animated avatar can be found in Second Life in which the different avatars are able to virtually meet and communicate with each other.

Being an almost limitless medium, the internet offers a wide range of possibilities to adjust one’s identity as it has already been mentioned. Thus, huge differences between people’s real life identities and their online roles can occur. One enormous difference can begender-swappingwhich means that an individual belonging to one gender creates an online identity of him/her that belongs to the opposite gender (Wood and Smith 2001: 56). Nonetheless, gender is simply “a social construct that provides guidelines for how we expect people of a certain biological sex to behave” (Ibid.). Hence, some people have certain stereotypes and if they get violated by the internet’s possibilities, they become surprised, confused or even afraid. But on the other hand, the availability of such options makes CMC more subtle, diverse and complex. Additionally, Wood and Smith (Ibid.) note that problems in online communication associated withgender-swappinghave been exaggerated since the majority of users of, for instance, online forums construct their identities as simply romanticized reflections of themselves without massive alterations in basic features such as gender.


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Privacy on social network sites and its impact on computer-mediated communication
Martin Luther University  (Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Text Types in Computer-Mediated Communication
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
497 KB
Quote paper
Nico Reiher (Author), 2009, Privacy on social network sites and its impact on computer-mediated communication, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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