Culture and Social Media: The Issue of Privacy

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

This morning at the ICCT intercultural coffee hour, the Yahoo! Fellows presented some interesting data and analysis about how users in the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) countries are using social networking. A significant aspect of their research is on privacy, both how users choose Lose Weight Exercise their privacy online, but also how it is used by social network sites to market to new users (e.g . Facebook with stricter privacy settings, MySpace with looser ones.)

A request to translate the word privacy into Russian stumped me and provoked a short, but potentially fascinating discussion on how privacy is defined across cultures. More specifically, does the notion of trust in the physical world differ between cultures? And if so, is it extended, and how directly, to online activities? Might the introduction of online privacy settings into a culture transcend social networking sites and start affecting how people perceive privacy differently in their lives?

I’m not going to attempt to answer these questions in this post, but I was curious about how privacy would be translated and what that might say about the notion of privacy in Russia, and what that means for social networking.

According to the online translators (and my father) privacy is translated as "конфиденциальность", or confidentiality. The etymology of the two words are revealing:

Privacy comes from the Latin privatus "set apart, belonging to oneself" (not to the state), used in contrast to publicus, communis.

Confidentiality comes from the Latin con (with) fidel (trust).

The two words imply opposite directions: privacy implies a distancing, a separation, while confidentiality implies proximity, closeness. One describes a relationship between the individual and the state, the other between individuals. One is about keeping out; the other is about bringing in. Or as one of my Russian friend interprets: "Privacy excludes everyone but myself, whereas confidentiality excludes everyone but me and the people I trust. This is more in line with Russian and American relationships with personal information." Even if we take her conclusion at face value, where does a certain relationship with personal information come from?

Taking into consideration that Russia was governed by an oppressive state, where privacy was always precarious, we might hypothesize that Russian users might be reluctant to engage in online activity that might reveal their personal activities. On the other hand, perhaps no longer fearing state intervention in their personal affairs, they might be more likely to reveal their private lives.

However, the research presented this morning places them on par with Brazil and the United States – approximately 14% of Russian social network users are concerned with privacy, as compared with 14% for Brazil and 16% for the US. Furthermore, 36% of Russian social network users feel comfortable giving out personal details, significantly higher than Brazil’s 23% but only slightly higher than the 30% in the US.

So, what shapes attitudes towards privacy? Historical political experiences? Media? Exceptionally high instances of spam? And what is the implication of these attitudes, not only for those running social networking sites, but for users themselves?

Update: Check out Ben Turner’s column on the topic where he presents his research. His distinction between political and personal privacy resonates well with the distinction in the definitions of the two words I offer in my post.