Online Privacy in Social Media: A Conceptual Exploration of Empowerment and Vulnerability

Communications & Strategies, No. 88, 4th Quarter 2012, pp. 99-120

22 Pages Posted: 5 Jan 2014

Date Written: December 15, 2012


Current transitions in the media and technology landscape go together with a shift from mass media and personal media to media for 'mass self-communication'. This is illustrated by the way that Web 2.0 or social media (like social network sites and micro-blogging) are becoming commercially engrained in Western everyday life, and the belief that the user is in the driver's seat of socio-technical innovation. However we observe a paradox. On the one hand the instruments and means for empowering users through social media are proliferating, reinforcing the idea of users effectively becoming empowered. On the other hand we find that empirical evidence about what user empowerment really consists of is too a large extent missing and that a risk of denial of the empowerment downside exists. After all if we indeed find opportunities for user empowerment, also the counterpart of disempowerment is at stake. The latter is particularly visible in the relation between social media, empowerment and privacy. In this paper we take a closer look at how people's disempowerment and vulnerability is being reconfigured within the changing media landscape of mass self-communication. To illustrate these transitions, we focus on issues of privacy in relation to social media. In particular we take a critical view on how vulnerability takes shape in online consumer privacy. For this we first discuss the notions of mass self-communication, empowerment and privacy more generally. Next we highlight to what extent privacy for consumers using social media is different and how their vulnerability changes from an external and internal perspective. The transition from the classic view on privacy to online privacy to online consumer privacy illustrates that the notion 'privacy' needs to be rethought. The paper is based on a literature review to deconstruct and explore the key concepts empowerment, disempowerment, vulnerability and privacy in relation to mass self-communication and social media.

Keywords: social media, privacy, surveillance, empowerment, vulnerability.

JEL Classification: Z13

Suggested Citation

Pierson, Jo, Online Privacy in Social Media: A Conceptual Exploration of Empowerment and Vulnerability (December 15, 2012). Communications & Strategies, No. 88, 4th Quarter 2012, pp. 99-120, Available at SSRN:

Jo Pierson (Contact Author)


Pleinlaan 9
Brussels, 1050

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