Be careful with what you post.
For Eva Evans, posting pictures to social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook isn’t just a way to share photographs with friends. It’s a way to create her identity.
“You have a whole online presence that can be entirely different from who you really are,” said Evans, a sophomore at the University of Vermont. “It gives a false sense of control in that aspect because it allows you to create a ‘cover’ to be read by.”
Evans, like many other college students, uploads pictures online to construct the identity that she wants her friends to see. However, she admits that any images she uploads will become “accessible and uncontrollable,” since she has no control over where those images end up. The picture of herself that she creates for her friends is shown to the world as well.
Last weekend, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel stirred controversy by posting an Instagram picture of himself holding wads of cash with the caption “casino ballin.” He later deleted the photo from Instagram, but it remains public on various websites. Manziel didn’t do anything illegal — as he noted on Twitter, he was over 18 and in a legal casino — but some fans believed the photo showed bad taste. Although the photo may have boosted Manziel’s popularity in his social group, the image wasn’t limited to just friends.
Laura Portwood-Stacer, assistant professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University, has seen a similar trend among her students.
“Based on what my social media students are telling me in my classes, they are not thinking as much as they should about how their pictures might be used,” she said. Portwood-Stacer also said she thinks that most people assume others will use their online photos in the same way that they use them, by “checking out their friends and acquaintances and maybe passing a bit of social judgment.”
“I am guilty of thinking about how cool it would be to be the first person to share a photo from a memorable event,” said Ritika Shah, a sophomore at University of Ohio. “Sometimes I even take photos simply for the purpose of documenting them online.”
However, people outside of a student’s social group can often get access to personal images shared online. Even if students do pay attention to how others might be able to use their photos, the privacy guidelines on sites such as Instagram are often confusing and unclear.
“There is no satisfying general answer as to what the basic privacy rights are for social media users,” said Woodrow Hartzog, assistant professor of law at the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University. Privacy policies, he added, “rarely match user expectations” and users can easily find others’ information online.
“It is no surprise that potential employers, admissions officers and even potential friends or romantic partners rely on social media information to make determinations about a person’s reputation,” Hartzog said. Along with co-researcher Fred Stutzman, Hartzog has identified a middle-ground of privacy known as “obscurity,” in which information is shared with others online but is unlikely to be discovered by third parties. For example, students might share a picture of themselves drinking alcohol with friends, and not intend that picture to be seen by a college admissions officer. However, privacy law is still struggling to deal with this “obscure” ground of privacy.
New ways to share images online are emerging constantly — the new iPhone app Snapchat allows users to send an image that self-destructs in a few seconds — and rules of social media are still unclear. Pictures in casinos and pictures at parties are meant for friends, but shared with thousands. “It’s an insanely complex world that I don’t know our generation (or anyone) has fully realized yet,” Evans said.
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