A well-intentioned grandmother accidentally hurt her grandkids’ feelings. She took screenshots of their delightful Instagram photos and proudly uploaded them to Facebook for all of her social network friends to see. If the younger generation didn’t set their accounts to private, could Grandma possibly have committed a faux pas? All she did was lovingly pass along publicly available information!
In her latest “Social Media Etiquette for the Rest of Us” column, Amy Vernon decrees that while “Instagranny’s” heart was in the right place, she still displayed bad judgment. We think Amy is right. But the reason why etiquette prevents “publicly available” from necessarily meaning carte blanche deserves a little more attention.
To be sure, Grandma had good reason to believe she was acting in good faith. When her grandkids uploaded their pics to Instagram, it might have appeared that they were snubbing their noses at privacy. Or, at the very least, perhaps they appeared unconcerned with what might happen with their photos. At face value, taking issue with Facebook posts of information voluntarily made publicly accessible might even seem confused, if not hypocritical.
So, why did Grandma fail to display the wisdom so often associated with age?
Vernon argues that the answer is simple. Grandma misinterpreted her grandkids’ intentions. “Maybe there’s a reason they didn’t post them on Facebook,” Vernon writes. Indeed, “maybe they want their friends and perfect strangers to see the photos, but didn’t want family to.”
Personalizing the matter, Vernon notes:
“When I was in my teens, 20s, 30s, I didn’t want to share what I was doing with my whole family. We didn’t have Instagram and Facebook to share everything with everyone (well, Facebook came along in the latter half of my 30s, but no one in my family was on it). If my grandmother had taken photos from my apartment and photocopied them and sent them in a newsletter to her friends and extended family, I’d have been mortified.
Let’s elevate this mundane case to a deeper point about privacy.
Making a public social media post isn’t tantamount to forgoing privacy concerns. Pictures uploaded to Instagram may very well be available for everyone to see at the click of a button. But if folks don’t have interest or incentive to troll the site, that information effectively can be hidden from them in plain sight. Sure, Aunt Edna and Uncle Joe might check Grandma’s Facebook feed daily. But they might not consume any other social media. Or, they might not have family in mind when running Instagram searches. Perhaps they just use it to find Lolcats.
If Grandma assumed that all publicly shared information wants to be free, she made a common mistake. She presupposed information exists in one of two forms: public or private. In reality, however, disclosures are more nuanced than that. They exist along a continuum of obscurity. At one end of the continuum lies information we’re shouting from the rooftops and want to be made absolutely transparent. At the other end of the continuum lies information we keep to ourselves and want to be kept absolutely secret. In between these extremes is lots of middle ground. On many occasions, we try to communicate with one group or another and hope the information doesn’t travel past these “private publics.”
“In everyday conversations, the word ‘obscurity’ is used to talk about unnoticed people and inconspicuous things. Additionally…obscurity should refer to privacy protections that make it hard for unwanted parties to obtain personal information or understand exactly what our personal disclosures mean.
Social media users regularly employ obscurity-creating tactics. Users choose whether to create accounts with protected tweets, sign up for accounts under pseudonyms, have coded conversations that contain hidden meanings, or use add-ons like Twitterspirit that delete tweets after a self-selected expiration date has been reached.”
Ultimately, every time we put information online, we roll the dice with obscurity. We hope our intentions are clear and our strategy for the limiting or maximizing our reach is sound. The matter is complicated by the technological affordances of any given medium, which might not allow users to clearly express themselves by using tools like privacy settings. For example, one of us has a protected Twitter account. The account is protected mainly as a way to thwart bots, scrapers, and search engines. But that isn’t clear to followers who might wish to republish posts.
In a sense, our basic relation to the Internet is paradoxical: “Ceding control, while still wanting it.” In the digital age, etiquette should remove some fear from this paradoxical experience. That’s why Grandma and the rest of us should ask permission before re-posting information from one social medium to another.