Social media spring clean

Wednesday 20th December, 2017

Social media blog image

As spring settled in this year I, like many people, felt a strong urge to clean out my life. But this year was different. Instead of cleaning out my wardrobe and the garage, this year I did a social media spring clean.

As someone who has had a long-standing interest in privacy and civil liberties, I should probably be a little bit more cautious on social media. I have worked in privacy for years, and have an avid interest in data science and how much can be learned about someone from their behaviour online. How then, to reconcile my active social media life with my concern for privacy?

Part of my job is to talk with young people about their perspectives on privacy and what it means to them. The conversation often comes back to social media and the challenges of navigating growing up in the digital age. As a young person myself, I can relate to this experience, and for a long time I have been a big supporter of the idea that you can have your social media cake and privacy too. I scoffed at people who argued that abstinence was the best policy. After all, this neglects the fact that the way we engage with people in modern life has shifted online – your digital presence is important and counts for something beyond selfies and memes. While I wholeheartedly believe in the importance of privacy, I simultaneously acknowledge the power of social media, that the way you present yourself online matters, and that what is there (or not there) can impact your career and social life.

But what does it mean for privacy? Control, I spouted, was the key to using these platforms in a responsible way. Information self-determination would let me embrace privacy and social media. But what level of control are we actually exercising here? When some of the more popular platforms like Snapchat and Twitter are designed to embody the effect of gambling websites with the express goal of keeping you clicking, how much control do we really actively exercise? The reward for handing over your personal information is immediate and powerful.

So one spring morning, coffee in hand, I started to retrace my digital footprints. As I went I kept in mind that every page I unliked and every ‘friend’ I unfollowed was one less data point that would be able to tell a story about me in the future (interestingly, the act of removing things creates another data point in itself, but I digress). Even with the human eye, it was obvious to me that my activity online paints a picture of who I am. My preference for Moroccan food was there, as were my favourite bars and date spots, and you could easily infer my political persuasion. And while it’s fine for my friends to see this about me, I couldn’t help but think of what this means to people who aren’t my friends, especially when combined with all the other information about me that is out there that I don’t necessarily know about.

I continued to dig through the catalogue of my life since 2007 when I first jumped aboard the Facebook train. From embarrassing status updates to celebratory posts at important life events, here was my life – the mundane and the meaningful – mapped out for me to look at nostalgically, and for anyone else with the right tools to use for their own purposes.

It became increasingly uncomfortable to think of the scope of my ‘pattern of life’ data, not limited to social media but also including any of my online shopping habits, web browsing history, interactions with government agencies etc. All of this creating an ever-increasing stream of data to be fed into whichever algorithm de jour, and used to map not only my behaviour, but also to infer information about me and those I’m connected with, and use it as the basis of decisions or to make predictions.

Of course, much of this is unavoidable – I am probably not going to stop neurotically googling my symptoms when I get sick, nor am I going to stop looking for bargains online, or withdraw myself from interacting with the government. What I can control though, is what I choose to put onto social media.

I have always resented, and continue to resent, the argument we often hear (whenever someone is trying to convince you that it is okay for them to take your data), that if people give up their information willingly to social media, they shouldn’t have a problem with [insert organisation here] using it for [insert opaque purpose here]. This argument is flawed, is generally a distraction from the actual issue at hand, and should be regarded with a critical eye. People should be sceptical of anyone who tries to say that privacy doesn’t matter because of the existence of social media.

As far as I am concerned, the key difference is still choice. I choose to put my opinions on the internet. I choose to upload a picture of me with my friends on my birthday. While that choice may be a little bit clouded by the addictive nature of social media, it’s still a choice. And anyone can choose to take some control back, or conversely, can choose to broadcast their life as they please.

For me, I’m switching gears out of automatic and retaking control. There are so many ways our privacy is challenged that are out of our hands. Merely existing in our current connected world puts many of us into an information privacy paradox that can result in feeling powerless. My social media presence may only be a drop in the ocean of information about me on the internet, but it’s my drop, and this spring I decided to clean it out.

Social media does not make it easy to take a step back, it has done a wonderful job of making itself feel like an integral part of our lives. With every photo I delete, I remind myself that I am not deleting my past, that I am not deleting that person from my life – these moments continue to exist beyond the eyes of the internet. And even while I know that simply deleting something does not remove it fully (oh, the internet!) it feels good to take more active control of my personal information, and know that the way I am represented online is reflection of what I choose to put out there.

This article was written by Samantha Floreani, Policy Analyst, Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner. The views expressed in this post are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of OVIC.