With the holiday season comes a stream of social media updates from friends putting a hold on their online presence as they leave for vacation, sometimes without Internet access.
“Gone for three weeks on a trip. If you don’t hear from me, that’s why,” said Rachna Jain, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology, citing a friend’s Facebook status as an example. She laughed, “It’s sort of like saying, ‘I’m kind of afraid you’ll forget me while I’m gone!’ ”
Social media extends the reality of our physical lives to the virtual world. With the ability to provide personal information through uploaded pictures, updated statuses and wall-to-wall conversations, the extent to which we open up our lives has expanded as our boundaries of privacy have shifted.
“We want to share with people what we did, who we saw, what our ideas of fun are,” said Erica Finkelstein, a public communications student at American University. “We’re so used to sharing online … because that’s the way our generation works.”
An August 2012 Pew study reported 69% of online adults are plugged into social networking sites — 66% use Facebook. Fifteen percent of Facebook users update their statuses daily, 22% comment on another’s post and 26% “like” a friend’s activity, according to a June 2011 Pew study.
“Ten years ago, the modes of communication were more difficult. The boundaries were that we didn’t expect that people would have such a just-in-time view into our lives,” Jain said. “People have to be more conscious of where the line [of privacy] is for them … and an understanding of what they won’t post online at all versus what they feel comfortable sharing.”
What people choose to censor remains up to user discretion, but with the increased ease in the ability to share, social media plays a larger role as a virtual extension of the physical self. From Facebook profiles to Twitter pages and Instagram accounts, social networks offer a unique insight into users’ lives in a way that individuals might otherwise not have.
“It’s a different time and it’s an adjustment to what’s been acceptable and what’s acceptable now,” Lindsay Gordon, a senior at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. “Expectations of privacy are complicated by social networks … but it also depends on what we consider private.”
Through her study on the legal and professional ramifications of social networking sites, Gordon analyzes college-aged students’ expectations surrounding online privacy. Gordon reports that students are aware of the professional repercussions of inappropriate online activity, citing students’ general consensus that when it comes to privacy, all you can do is self-censor.
“Our private lives have the ability to be more public,” she said. “But it’s up to the discretion of each user of how much they want to publicize.”
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