When the playground extends to Twitter
An in-depth study of Facebook users by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that “regrettable postings are not unusual“, with 23% of those surveyed regretting something they’ve recently shared.
Respondents, who came from a wide variety of backgrounds, regretted sharing sensitive content (which related to drug use, politics, family issues and work), content with a strong sentiment (argumentative or critical comments) and lies and secrets the most.
People said that they shared this information to appear cool, funny, vent frustrations, or did so without thinking through the consequences of their actions.
These updates became regrettable because the update had reached an unintended audience, had underestimated consequences, or because the users misunderstood how Facebook worked and who would see the information they’d shared.
A number of the respondents talked about the difficulty of disentangling different contexts of their lives on Facebook; particularly separating the professional from the personal sphere. Younger users were more likely to take measures to ensure different friends saw different things by attempting to curate their profile and settings. In contrast, older users were more likely to simply self-censure.
The report stated that “even if a posting was only seen by its intended audience, it could still backﬁre because users cannot always foresee how others might perceive their postings”, adding: “Users may not have enough information at the time of posting or they may underestimate the consequences of their posts.”
The authors went on to conclude, “our results agree with many news stories that report that regrettable postings on Facebook can yield serious ramiﬁcations for users”.
The Paris Brown furore
This study provides some important context for thinking about the media reaction to Paris Brown’s high profile resignation from the first youth police commissioner role, after the Mail on Sunday published a series of tweets she’d sent.
I think it’s a compelling example of different generations clashing in the way they use and think about social media.
While the collective response has been to suggest younger people need to think more carefully about what they share online, I think much of the overreaction is based on a misunderstanding of how teenagers use Twitter in particular.
Amongst professionals who began using Twitter as working adults, the site is largely seen as a tool through which one can broadcast their views to a wider audience. As a result, those views are, broadly speaking, more carefully thought through and reflect the person’s age and status when they started using the site. The aim, essentially being, to build their personal brand.
While younger users of the site clearly need to think very carefully about the information they share, the danger is we judge their use of a site by the way we ourselves use it.
I started this piece with an academic study of Facebook use because I think, as a more private site (with few users making their status updates public) that most of us have been using for longer, we’re more inclined to share information there that is more personal because most of our friends on the site are just that: friends.
In contrast, many of our Twitter followers are strangers or loose work/industry-related connections and we’re very aware our tweets, unless we lock our profiles, are public and so we align them more closely with our professional persona.
In contrast, many teenagers use Twitter to converse with close friends, often referencing a stranger following them as ‘creepy’, and having (what they perceive to be) ‘private’ conversations beginning with @ mentions; which, in theory, means only people who follow both users would ordinarily see it.
I think we’re right to warn teenagers that they need to examine what they’re sharing publicly online but I wonder whether the reaction would be as strong if Paris had said the same thing on Facebook. While some of her comments are clearly indefensible, is part of the overreaction to what she said based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how a different demographic uses Twitter?
Just because what she said was public at the time, is dragging those tweets up years later any less an invasion of her privacy than if the newspaper had created a fake account to befriend her on Facebook to search her old status updates?