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media in transition


Forum 1:


Friday, May 3, 2013
Bartos Theater, MIT

Amid disquiet over encroachments on privacy by government and corporations, another class of concerns has arisen: That some people (often young users of social media) are not respecting the traditional boundaries of privacy and are choosing to share "too much information." Do these people's technical skills outstrip their social skills? Are they unaware of how information can persist and potentially damage their reputation? Or are the stern adults who question this behavior clinging to an outmoded idea of privacy? Are the apps and algorithms and platforms of social media invisibly transforming norms of privacy and personal freedom?


Feona Attwood is professor of media at Middlesex University, U.K., and editor of Mainstreaming Sex (2009), porn.com (2010), and co-editor of Controversial Images (2012). Her current book project is Media, Sex and Technology.

David Rosen writes the Media Current blog for Filmmaker magazine and is the author of Sex Scandals America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming (2010).

Jonathan Zittrain, professor of law and computer science at Harvard, is co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. His books include The Future of the Internet -- and How to Stop It (2008).

Moderator: Nick Montfort is associate professor of digital media at MIT and president of the Electronic Literature Organization. His books include Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, (with Ian Bogost, 2009) and Riddle & Bind (2010).


Video of Oversharing is available.


A downloadable podcast of Oversharing is available.


Streaming audio of Oversharing is available.


By Elyse Graham

Photos by Greg Peverill-Conti

[this is an edited summary, not a verbatim transcript]

David Rosen

David Rosen said that two questions are crucial for thinking about these issues. First, “What do we mean by privacy today, especially for young people?” The “born digital” generation may have different standards for privacy from their elders, making certain forms of oversharing not a problem, but a new norm.

Second, “What do we mean about selfhood, or self-empowerment, that new media facilitates in a 21st-century world?” The ability to send texts or craft a public image on Facebook may enable some young people to exercise and consolidate a sense of self that they would have been too shy to bring into real life; on the other hand, boldness in digital spaces comes about because of a sense of unreality about the digital world that we still have trouble understanding.

Feona Attwood

Feona Attwood suggested that we need, as a society, to develop a more nuanced and sympathetic understanding of the tonal differences between self-presentation online and offline. Digital technology “doesn’t carry tone of voice terribly well; it reaches people it shouldn’t reach; and I think that’s just the historical moment we’re trying to get our heads around,” she said.

In this light, she said, “We need a more sympathetic approach” when people reveal their foibles online.

Jonathan Zittrain
suggested that recording devices have become so prevalent in daily life — from Google Street View to cell phone cameras and video-equipped iPads — that even privacy battles of recent years have come to seem “quaint.”  

“We can stream anything, anytime, if we want,” he said. “Unless you’re in a Faraday-caged Fortress of Solitude, chances are increasingly moving toward one out of one that you’re being recorded.”

This context is changing our behavior in ordinary life, he said. Knowing that we may be recorded is making us more cautious and reserved. Increasingly, the new motto of public behavior seems to be, “Never do anything that will get you noticed.”

At the same time, he said, we are still learning how best to respond to recordings of others. He mentioned a recent incident in South Korea in which a girl refused to clean up a mess her pet dog left on a subway car, and one of the other passengers filmed the event and posted it online. People on social media websites figured out her identity and targeted her for “punishment” — and kept going even after she lost her job. Zittrain cited the incident as an example of how difficult it is for people who use crowd surveillance to enforce social norms “to understand that at some point, the remonstration has already happened and is in the past.”

Jonathan Zittrain

Zittrain suggested two tentative approaches to these problems. First, we should seek to make interventions in the system at the technological level, so that serious thinking about privacy has entered the process before anyone presses the “share” button.

“Telling kids to keep their heads a little bit closer to the ground and not be so unusual is not really the right point of intervention — both because of freedom for the kids, and because I don’t think it’s going to work,” he said. “What do we do to solve this problem? Where should we be focusing? I think that a lot of the people in this room already study this kind of thing. It’s how to do technological interventions so that the emerging complex system that is going to give rise to normal accidents is one that avoids the largest icebergs.”

“Design it so that if you record, the people around you are pinged or notified,” he added. “Let the technology help you to make that negotiation.”

Second, he said, we need to consider the value of privacy for creating an ethical society.

“If we want people to actually internalize norms and be reflective about them and own them,” he said, “we can’t be watching them all the time and Skinner-boxing them to do the right thing, or else they’ll only learn that it’s the camera that’s keeping them well-behaved. In the coming bad years, when the cameras break, that will lead to bad things.”

The panelists also discussed whether media technologies are changing too fast for us to develop a fixed set of social conventions concerning privacy.

Zittrain suggested this might be the case, at least in the short term. A few years ago, he said, he signed up for the DNA testing service 23andme, which he expected to have very heavy-duty privacy policies because of the nature of the information involved.

As it happened, the company’s policies were fairly standard, he said; but what surprised him was how comfortable he became, in a short time, with sharing his genetic information himself. What had seemed like a very private matter became another cool data set to share.

Finally, the panelists considered the role of legislature and political debate in coming to grips with these issues. Rosen noted that at a large bipartisan conference last year, the Personal Democracy Forum, Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon and Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky discussed media and policy from a political perspective. Zittrain added that legislation has already set limits on certain potential practices, for instance preventing employers from testing the DNA of employees for genetic diseases.

Jonathan Zittrain

But Zittrain added that political debates about privacy are often dominated by powerful companies and special interest groups: “This isn’t to give up on the regulatory process, but be careful what you wish for when you get those gears in motion; it’ll all just amount to a tax cut. And often the word of the day is self-regulation.”

The political process also moves too slowly to keep up with technological change, he added: “The US Federal Trade Commission has done good work in the past few years. But they tend only to push on very widely spread, well-understood, well-defined problems — basically when the iceberg has been scraping against the ship for quite a while.”

Audience Question and Answer

Chris Peterson, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Comparative Media Studies, asked: Why not make being recorded in public places opt-in rather than opt-out?

Zittrain suggested that the emergence of such a policy is possible. He pointed out that when cell phones were still coming into wide use, a performance at the theater would begin with the manager asking for members of the audience to turn off their cell phones. “Now people just do it,” he said.

“Maybe in the future, you’ll respect the default of the space,” whether that default means recording is allowed or not.

Another audience member asked whether “our notions of privacy, public and private,” reflect outdated 18th-century concepts.

Rosen argued that this may well be the case, and that the loss of those concepts could have disastrous effects. Secrets are necessary to maintain a healthy sense of self, he said: the “notion of selfhood, of privacy, of secrets… is tied to a sense of self-individuation, of who we are in the world.” Social media and institutional surveillance seem to be geared toward tamping down people who don’t fit in, at the cost of individual autonomy: “It’s a form of discipline imposed particularly on the young to control them and to manage their entry into the workforce. I don’t know how we can maintain the traditional bourgeois notion of selfhood, of autonomy, of the liberal spirit of self, within this growing commodification, ones-and-zeroes universe.”

“Perhaps most people don’t understand this, in terms of how we use the media,” he added. “We don’t understand the social nature of its being in the market, and its being part of a system which is used to rob us of our selfhood, of our secrets, which is what privacy is all about.” 

MiT8 audience

Another audience member asked whether it might be useful to distinguish the appearance of “privacy” from true “intimacy.” In practice, he said, the information that people reveal through social media is more like a ghost-written autobiography than a tell-all: “The content on social media websites is extremely planned, almost creating an online persona of who you are.”

Attwood suggested that we should encourage more diversity and less careful grooming in our self-presentation online: “We need to get the emphasis off, ‘So don’t say it. Be quiet. Don’t share things.’” Whether we think about legislation on privacy or about hiring practices or even more broadly about new notions of etiquette – we must allow for diversity.  We need systems that do not say “Everyone must do this thing, everyone is like this.”