Mashing up Private and Public

This article was originally posted on April 03, 2010.

(Flickr photo hello, neighbours! by D’Arcy Norman )

As someone who is:

  • active in several social media communities,
  • committed to helping clients think about how information is shared and secured,
  • interested in current events (like the newly enacted Mass Privacy statute and well-publicized data security breaches), and
  • fortunate to have access to some really smart people on topics involving knowledge management, social computing, and information security,

I think a lot about private vs public communications.

For a while, I have considered on-line privacy in light of a construct I first saw courtesy of Doug Cornelius through one of his many presentations (perhaps at the Boston KM Forum). I appreciated the concise summary of how people share information on the internet via the “Four Ps: Personal, Professional, Public, and Private.”

Last week, I felt the lines among those four quadrants blur more than a little as I read the speaker’s crib notes from a keynote presentation given at the recent South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) conference by danah boyd. ms boyd is a researcher whose focus includes studying how young people use the internet and social media, and she spends a lot of time listening to young internet users and thinking about how expectations and social mores are evolving around the concept of privacy.

In Dr. boyd’s keynote speech, she highlights several instances where online systems are evolving in unexpected ways (e.g., well-publicized unseemly goings-on on chatroulette, mash-ups of location-based applications used as farcical “robbery helpers”), and instances where service providers have changed the rules unexpectedly by commission or omission, often hiding under the self-serving rubric of “ Privacy is Dead.”

If you live a fair amount of your life on-line (yes, I’m talking to you, Facebookers), a quick look to take stock of what information you’re broadcasting, whether intentionally or inadvertently, on the Internet might be in order: the best data point from Dr. boyd’s presentation might be that 65% of Facebook users have left their privacy settings at the lowest level (all open to the public). This is severely at odds with the Pew Foundation’s research that 85% of all adults want to control who has access to their personal information. Have you checked your privacy settings lately?

So, in addition to creating a reminder to yourself to get your car’s oil changed, to change the batteries in your home’s smoke detectors, and to get your annual free credit report, perhaps you should consider a periodic “on-line reputation monitoring” exercise. Search for yourself using the search engine or your on-line social community of choice every few months, and see what you’ve been broadcasting about yourself to the world. You may be surprised at what you find.

If you develop or use on-line communities in your place of work, heed Dr. boyd’s advice to consider whether you are providing a space that is clearly and unequivocally public, or one that provides a feeling of privacy. If the latter, spend time considering your policies and norms, and listen to your users to understand their expectations. The price of publicly exposing information thought to be private can be enormous, in both economic and real human terms. As Dr. boyd’s examples illustrate, there are lives in the balance.

Originally published at



Project management, financial management, and knowledge management. Microsoft 365 aficionado. Opinions and Philly attytood are my own.

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Mike Gilronan

Project management, financial management, and knowledge management. Microsoft 365 aficionado. Opinions and Philly attytood are my own.