Privacy, Trust and Online Communities

Last night’s wonderful conversation with Rick Schwier brought up the issue of trust with online communities. A few people expressed discomfort or concern with sharing online, openly.

It’s scary to feel vulnerable. I think that is something that everyone has experienced, most especially when you feel like you are also out of your element. The possibility of vulnerability and the scope of it are one of the biggest shifts with this course from more traditional courses. Instead of writing assignments solely for our instructor (the ultimate in traditional model), or even for the limited audience of classmates (forums, groupwork, presentations), we are being asked to write openly. Anyone can see what we blog and we have “network mentors” attending our weekly sessions – worth noting that many of those people previously took the class, so they know exactly what we’re going through.

The same vulnerability leads some people to avoid putting up their hand during class but this is definitely a wider scope for sharing. After all, the saying goes that if it’s posted on the internet, it’s there forever.

I went through some of this crisis a while ago. I started blogging very sporadically quite a number of years ago. In my case, I started in a safe place and blogged crafts I’d made. I started after reading numerous blogs by other crafters (mostly card-makers), and realized that I did have something to contribute. Me! (I’d never gotten into the idea of a LiveJournal since I couldn’t believe anyone needed or wanted to read what ran through my head otherwise.) So crafting was safe because it was a bounded topic. I stuck to that. It gave me a safe area to share and get used to the concept that others might read what I wrote. As you can imagine, I still kept a lot of myself back. I didn’t talk about what I did when I wasn’t crafting, or my family or any of that sort of thing.

That changed eventually. As I mentioned last night, I have a fun job of working for an online wedding planning community as a Community Manager (which means I manage the volunteer moderators, work out policy, oversee how the community functions, and deal with some technical aspects as well as responding to member queries and concerns). When I started, I was just a member. So I learned to share in a “private” space. You had to apply to join, based on specific criteria, and only other members could see the content. That still felt fairly safe to me, even if they were strangers. I could talk about a specific topic again, I didn’t have to share anything, and I knew who would not be reading what I wrote. But eventually I became a Community Manager and I got ideas of things for the related blogs. I submitted public posts! People actually read what I wrote! Eventually, I even got personal.

One aspect of sharing online that a lot of people find freeing is that there is some level of anonymity and distance. You are not faced with the people directly so you can share without everyone staring at you. You probably won’t see them tomorrow or the next day and, while they may know who you are, they may not be someone you regularly encounter. A lot of introverted or shy people find the internet a lot less scary because of that. You can also think things through more easily before sharing, something I shared with Tanya last night. Things may move quickly, but you can also choose to jump in at your own pace in many mediums (not a chat so much, but Twitter holds conversations and blogs are wonderful for this).

It doesn’t apply to this class, but there is also the ability to choose an online identity. I can put a barrier up by using another name. Or I can avoid sharing a name at all in some settings. It’s one reason that I prefer to allow anonymous blog commenting rather than require signing in with some social media. I always want that choice because sometimes we want to share, to participate, but it may be something difficult or personal or sensitive. (This anonymity is always tenuous and not a right, of course, and sometimes it can dissolve quickly.)

I’ve learned a lot about public sharing on the internet and the way our understanding of privacy is adapting to the new medium. Understanding privacy controls can be important but more and more, we’re letting things be public. We talk on our cells in public, Tweet, post to Facebook, etc. More and more content and conversations happen in a public way. Privacy is now about our data and who can access it as much as about who sees what we write. So how do we keep things “private”?

danah boyd has written various articles about privacy, especially as it relates to teens, including a relatively recent one on how teens are dealing with privacy according to PEW. An ongoing theme in her work is that teens are finding ways to code meaning, creating references that make sense to those in the know, while they are baffling to those who don’t. It’s the equivalent of “you know what I mean”. She and Alice E. Marwack wrote Social Privacy in Networked Publics about teens and privacy.

In the face of public sharing, privacy is still an issue. Alison Seaman (at least I’m guessing it was that Alison!) shared a link last night from Melanie McBride about the right of privacy. I completely agree that we still have the right to choose what we share and what we don’t. In a course like this, however, we find the lines blurring. How much do we need to share? How much do we feel safe sharing?

I admit, I’m pretty likely to feel safe sharing. I have experience with safe communities, even ones that are open, so I’ve worked hard to find my own limits for what I will and will not share. For example, I tend to share my opinions, feelings and experiences easily but I may be more reticent about sharing about family – no names – and I may code what I say to ensure that the privacy of others is retained except for those who know me well.

I also started sharing and chatting online when I was 17 and so during the years that I became an adult, sharing online was normal to me. I have friendships all over, met my husband online first, and have blogged about some pretty personal things. But that comes with experience and a little trust being given. In building a community, we need to start by giving a little trust, sharing a little, then seeing if we feel that’s justified. Greg Bawden and I actually had a conversation about being the bridge group between those who grew up with all the technology and those who feel unfamiliar with it. It feels pretty familiar to me but I still remember the days before computers, before the internet, when I had to dial directly to the public library to log into their system.

Someone (I think it was Kyle Dumont) said that respect has to be earned or at least demonstrated before there is trust. I’ve found online, however, that sometimes you have to start with the assumption of respect because so many of the usual cues aren’t there.

So sharing may have to happen before we’re absolutely certain of respect and trust. Sometimes it just takes a few people willing to put themselves out there. When a few people share and demonstrate that it is safe, others can begin to follow.

I’ll take that leap and work on sharing openly so others can feel safer knowing me, knowing who I am and what I do. Knowing that I respect their privacy, even as they put themselves out there in different ways.

2 thoughts on “Privacy, Trust and Online Communities”

  1. I believe that boundaries play an important part in all or our relationships and interactions on or off line. I think that you make an excellent point about taking a calculated risk to get conversations growing and build trust within a group.

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