This is one of a series of posts on Digital Lives: Three Themes … Formats, Privacy, and Presence.

A recurring theme in conversations about “the digital age” is privacy. Facebook, Google’s “don’t be evil”, the Cambridge Analytica scandal … and then the backlashes and attempts to regulate: cookie law, GDPR, people leaving Facebook. It’s a very real question of what price do we pay for the convenience of social media platforms and googley/appley joined-up services.

It is fashionable to say that this is not a price worth paying. But that position also comes from a place of privilege: when people say “I’d rather pay in my cash than my data”, “I’d rather keep in touch with my family outside Facebook”, “I prefer to socialise face to face”. Great: those are choices that some people can make. Not everyone has the money or social power to make that choice.

I feel sad at a scenario where we give up wanting a universal everyone-is-welcome, free at the point of use social network. I don’t want to have to choose a platform.

If you’ve followed the Cambridge Analytica story you’ll know that your Facebook friends make decisions about your privacy, without your knowledge or consent. It’s not just about your personal decisions. Apparently one of the big threats to the security of at-risk children is their own grandparents being unable to resist posting photographs and giving away location information.

Is a conversation on whatsapp private compared to a conversation on Facebook? Socially it might be. A 1:1 exchange is easy to know the boundaries of. But if the other person adds someone, can that person see the previous exchange?

I have joined political groups and support groups on Facebook: do I really know who can see that? If I like something on an endometriosis support group, do I mind that other people can see it?

In the workplace I regularly confuse myself with sharing documents and online folders: who can see what, and why? I want to be collaborative in my document authoring but how do I make sure commenters know who will see their comments now and in the future?

If I designed my household for my family’s use and then gave the key to another 10 people to come and let themselves in whenever they liked, what would that do to the sense of home?

These are boundaries we negotiate in our digital lives. If I’m honest I find it a bit stressful, and I’m a “digital resident“. I can imagine it is very uncomfortable for people who feel like visitors to digital spaces.

But but but … privacy is a historical concept. It hasn’t always been an expectation. In pre-industrial England people lived in smaller groups and unless they left their village they carried their history with them. Read Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens for evidence that no-one really runs away from their past: through the six degrees of separation someone will spill the beans to our heroine about the handsome stranger.

Should we expect privacy to persevere for another century as a value, or is it a nice-to-have that could be traded off for social connection and convenience? Or am I only thinking that from a position of convenience as someone who has already married and established a career?

This is one of a series of posts on Digital Lives: Three Themes … Formats, Privacy, and Presence.