Happy Privacy Week!

“Just because something is publicly accessible does not mean that people want it to be publicized.” -Dana Boyd

You knew about Poetry Month, and Earth Day, but I bet you have never heard of Privacy Week! The week is to encourage individuals to engage in a national dialogue on privacy and to take charge of their privacy. It may also be an opportunity to rant and rave about how Privacy Is Dead, but I digress.

I currently teach Grade 5. As you can imagine, Grade 5 students are starting to test boundaries, challenge their previous assumptions and they are doing many of this in the digital landscape. Despite our discussions and lessons, my students feel anonymous on the web. I’ve told them that every click is like leaving a fingerprint or a piece of their DNA, yet, their actions tell me that they do not believe me!

A few weeks back, a student wrote a cruel text message to another student in my class… and it turned out that the text message went to the other student’s mother’s phone. Ouch. Another student wrote a mean comment in a google doc, not remembering that their name appears in the comment box. Classic. And earlier this year, another student wrote an anonymous comment on someone’s blog but we were able to track the IP address. Ooops.

If the kids did this on the school yard, they would not speak loud enough to be heard, for fear of the consequences. Yet, online, these kids to not think twice about incriminating themselves. This got me to thinking – what are they not understanding?

Is this an issue of trust? Privacy? Unclear expectations? Lack of maturity?

It got me to thinking about my first interactions on the web. I certainly made a lot of these rookie errors – publishing too much information, not checking my privacy settings, typing words that I did not realize could ever come back to haunt me. But, I attributed this to a lack of understanding of the web – since it was all new to me. By nature, I also trust easily, and I got burned a few times before I realized I had to make some changes. Perhaps the embarrassment and horror those students must have felt when they realized their errors must have made were the same that I felt when I realized I had not controlled my privacy effectively. That oh-just-kill-me-now feeling engulfing me.

And then it hit me. Wanting privacy is not necessarily about having things to hide, it is about having some semblance of control, some sense of safety. Just like in live social circles, people want to build up a community, where we can actually open up. When we freak out about privacy settings, aren’t we really just feeling a lack of control? Everyone has things that they don’t want everyone to know. Everyone. It is not just secrets. But with tweets, Facebook updates, Instagram, we are pushing the boundaries of our private selves and contributing to our own discomforts. Is it possible to maintain your “privacy” while living in public? Or is it all an illusion, and our online identity is just theatrics?

If adults cannot even grapple with these issues – what does this all mean for my students?

Ethnographer Dana Boyd, focuses on social media research. In her address at SXSW in 2010, “Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity“, she spoke about the difference between PII (Personally Identifiable Information) and PEI (Personally Embarrassing Information). We teach kids not to put any PII on the internet, yet many adults do, in order to find and connect with friends in social networks. What gets us up in the morning to check Facebook to untag a picture is really PEI. However, what is embarrassing to one person, may not be embarrassing to another. At some point, individually, we all need to draw a line. We do not need to record every moment of our private lives publicly. Is it the same people complaining about their privacy settings who are also posting instant updates from their Friday night social engagement? As Michael Malice aptly puts it, “People think that every thought they have, every experience — if it is not captured it is lost.” There is certainly a difference between being out in public, and wanting that information being publicized to the world. On the web, that line is inherently blurred.

This is a complicated issue with complicated, and personal, answers.

Let me leave you with some questions that are again recommended by Dana Boyd. When talking to kids about privacy, she recommends toning down the instruction, and increasing the dialogue. Avoid telling them what to do, instead asking questions such as… What are you trying to achieve? Who do you think you’re talking to? How would you feel if someone else was looking? What if what you said could be misinterpreted?

And finally, have you, and your students consider the beauty and magic in a “life less posted”.

Just some public thoughts in honor of Privacy Week.