We Care About Different Things: Non-Elite Conceptualizations of Social Media Privacy

18 Pages Posted: 14 Mar 2018 Last revised: 16 Aug 2018

See all articles by Kelly Quinn

Kelly Quinn

University of Illinois at Chicago

Dmitry Epstein

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem - Department of Communication and the Federmann School of Public Policy

Date Written: August 2018


Privacy has become the de facto currency of the social media world. People routinely disclose information, which not too long ago was considered private, in exchange for digital tools and services. At the same time, the concept itself is surprisingly fluid, its interpretation and enactment are highly contextual, and they often do not align, thus resulting in the so-called “privacy paradox”. Such ambiguity has adversely factored into privacy policy debates. While previous research has looked into the behavioral aspects of privacy or into the strategic deployment of its various meanings in policy deliberation, there is limited inquiry into how social media users themselves perceive and interpret the idea of privacy. Using recently collected survey data, our goal is to help conceptualize social media privacy in a participant-centric way, thus further enhancing efforts to theorize privacy and design privacy-sensitive policy solutions. In our effort to map the frames of references to privacy used by social media users we draw on two main bodies of literature. First, framing literature offers an established conceptual framework for understanding the importance of definition for both behavioral and structural outcomes. Second, relevant privacy literature helps situate our current work in earlier efforts to tease out the plurality and context-driven fluidity of privacy definitions. Data in this study were collected in the fall of 2017 using a self-administered, web-based survey through Qualtrics panel service. The sample was representative of the US population, based on 2010 US Census demographics, on characteristics of age, gender, and income. The survey included a range of questions on attitudes and behaviors related to social media and privacy, including the following open-ended question: “With respect to [most frequently used social media platform], what does privacy mean to you?” Participants were required to supply a definition consisting of a minimum of 135 characters. We conducted topic modeling – a method used to analyze the words of the unstructured texts to discover the themes that run through them and how those themes may be connected to each other – in order to tease out themes in users’ definitions of privacy. Our preliminary results suggest that users’ conceptualizations of privacy emphasize dimensions of social privacy, i.e., privacy between users of social media platforms, over conceptualizations of privacy that emphasizes freedom from oversight. While mostly consistent with prior work on privacy framing by non-elites, these results demonstrate that users view their own social networks as their primary audiences, as opposed to platform sponsors or other institutions. Such prioritization of the social aligns with ideas of networked privacy, and may indicate that user framing of privacy is perhaps more focused on social aspects than what has been assumed by policy makers. Vertical privacy, seems to have lower levels of relevance across user definitions. This lack of attention to institutional privacy incursions may further reify existing power imbalances where information about an individual is collected continuously. We plan to conduct additional analyses - such semantic network analysis – to further map out the landscape of users’ conceptualizations of privacy and consider it repercussions for policy.

Keywords: privacy, framing, non-elites, vertical privacy, horizontal privacy

Suggested Citation

Quinn, Kelly and Epstein, Dmitry, We Care About Different Things: Non-Elite Conceptualizations of Social Media Privacy (August 2018). TPRC 46: The 46th Research Conference on Communication, Information and Internet Policy 2018. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3139830

Kelly Quinn

University of Illinois at Chicago ( email )

Department of Communication
Chicago, IL
United States

Dmitry Epstein (Contact Author)

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem - Department of Communication and the Federmann School of Public Policy ( email )

Mount Scopus
Jerusalem, IL Jerusalem 91905

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