Big Brother is Watching

“Tell us about yourself.”

We’ve all had to field this question. It’s one of the most ubiquitous statements uttered in job interviews – or by anyone trying to get to know someone.  Social media has a way of subtly asking us about ourselves and we eagerly tell. While we share with such zeal, we might not necessarily think about the consequences of revealing a little too much.

Social media is on its way to shattering whatever distinctions remain between the private and public self. Facebook has taken private information and made it public; and they’ve taken public information and made it, well, even more public. All the information we provide to the datasphere makes it ever-easier to track and profile us. It’s hard to not notice the floating Google and Facebook ads that are eerily tailored to our preferences.

Bobbi Duncan found out how Facebook reveals more information than we want others to know. The UT Austin student sought out the Queer Chorus, an LGBT campus organization, in an effort to find a community of like-minded people. When the chorus president added Duncan to their Facebook group, Facebook discounted her privacy settings and posted an update to Duncan’s friends, including her disapproving father.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Duncan recalls when her father found out, “I remember I was miserable and said, Facebook decided to tell my dad I was gay.”

With an increasing number of social media outlets, it is harder to keep track of the information we are publicizing. It’s easy to, without realizing it, disclose all of the relevant and necessary data to social media venues in order to determine our identities, interests and beliefs based on the raw data we provide or what we “Like.” What’s more, it’s fun.

In this way, Facebook’s powerful algorithmic approach to personality assessment can build on the information we provide to assemble a striking portrait of our online selves. If we know one fact to be true we can then assume certain interests, opinions and beliefs without question. One user found that the company’s targeted Newsfeed ads revealed that Facebook knew he was gay before he came out. A recent University of Cambridge study was even able to data-mine users’ Facebook endorsements and link them to personality traits. Researchers found they could analyze people’s “Likes” to determine everything from their political preferences and sexual orientation to their IQ.

Social media has taken some of the guesswork out of figuring out who we are and seemingly brings us closer to eliminating the need for human interpretation. By taking out the guesswork, we lose the ability to construct and control our own personal narrative and tell friends and strangers alike how we really see ourselves. Duncan lost control of her own narrative with regard to disclosing her sexuality – the one she wanted to tell, not the one Facebook wanted to.

Social media platforms construe data in a rational, logical, and objective manner in order to avoid human error and find patterns in large amounts of complex information. Is it possible for social media to process subjective and emotional facts in an objective and logical way? Is it up to an algorithm to decide who we are or tell us about ourselves? What if we think Facebook’s interpretation of ourselves isn’t an accurate one? As time goes on, there will be little room for us to figure ourselves out on our own terms.

Is Facebook mistaken in assuming all the information we provide is fair game to be public? Should certain privacy settings on individual accounts be overridden by actions done by Facebook page group leaders?

Duncan’s story is a tale of trying to create private and public personae in order to lead both a private and public life. It seems no amount of privacy settings can hide us from our true selves or shield us from other opposing viewpoints or disapproval from family or friends. Social media is ultimately another medium of self – expression and Duncan reminds us that that expression should be left up to the individual: “It shouldn’t be somebody else’s choice what people see of me.”

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Written by Guest Post