Are you exposed on Internet?

Age of social media blurs line between public, private

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Cliff Vancura/Durango Herald

With about one in every nine people on the planet on Facebook, the question of privacy in the digital age is one that affects nearly everyone.

“It seems odd to think about, but social networking and a lot of the digital media we’re surrounded by have not been around that long,” said Stephanie Vie, an assistant professor of composition and rhetoric at Fort Lewis College.

Without a doubt, the perception of privacy in the digital age has changed. What is less clear is what this means. In many ways, we’re all involved in a global social experiment – of which even experts can only guess the outcome.

With so much change, so quickly, some are exercising increased caution in their online lives.

Preston Pitcher, 29, youth pastor for First Baptist Church in Durango, took the plunge into social networking between 2007 and 2008 when he created a Facebook profile.

“I was a little late to get one,” Pitcher said. “I finally just gave in because it became the norm – everyone starting talking about it.”

For Pitcher, social networking has become “second nature.” He now uses it to communicate with the youths of his church.

“More often than not, the only way to get a hold of the youth is a blast Facebook post,” Pitcher said. “I even have a youth-group page set up to where that has been the best way to communicate.”

Even younger kids without phones have a Facebook page, Pitcher said.

“It’s been very effective updating the youth and their parents,” he said.

While Facebook makes communicating easy, it comes with costs.

Vie, who wrote her doctoral dissertation about digital privacy, said that unless users enable privacy settings or otherwise restrict their information, content posted to the Internet is there for everyone to see.

“There is a perception that public and private has sort of meshed in a way that it previously did not because we are living so much of our lives online these days,” Vie said.

She said we’re still figuring out the ramifications of those blurred lines.

For Pitcher, this initially came as a surprise.

“I didn’t even know what my settings were, so I went and checked – I was full public, completely public to where anyone could see everything,” Pitcher said. “It was kind of scary. This was something that I just discovered yesterday after being a member for so long.”

Vie said that having a public profile is important to certain people for a number of reasons, socially or professionally.

“If you choose to have a public profile, you are also running that risk of making your content more public than your intended audience might be,” Vie said. “Once you put information on the Internet, you lose your control over it in a number of ways.”

For example, she said, “I might put a photo of myself online, but in a way, I’ve relinquished control of that photo and what others might say about it and what they can do to modify or adapt it.”

As Pitcher has become more savvy in social media, he’s also become more leery.

“Even if we say our profile is private, how do we actually know?” he asked. “Is Mark Zuckerberg (the creator of Facebook) up there saying, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s private,’ and keeping a file on everyone?”

Josh, a 26-year-old Durango resident who asked that only his first name be used, said that he will never create an online profile.

“You never know what information that you share might come back to haunt you in 10 years, or even 20 years,” he said. “To me, sharing information online is like sending it up to this floating island of information, I don’t understand it, and I don’t know the extent of who can access that information even if I think that I’m keeping it private.”

Josh also has concerns about potential employers holding information that they find online against him when he is looking for a job.

On March 30, Facebook said in a public statement that reports of businesses asking potential employees for passwords in order to view private posts and pictures as part of the job-application process were ‘alarming.’

In a survey released by Microsoft Research in 2010, 70 percent of recruiters said they’d rejected applicants based on information they found online.

But before you delete or deactivate your Facebook account, note that the research also identified the opposite: 68 percent of job granters said social-networking profiles contributed to a candidate getting hired.

Josh acknowledged that social media may not always be a negative in the job search, but that didn’t change his mind.

“When I am applying for jobs, that employer should look at my credentials, not my personal life,” he said.

In February, the Obama Administration released a proposed ‘Bill Of Rights’ for online privacy.

The bill’s main purpose is to enable users to easily tell Internet companies with a single click whether they want their online activity tracked.

Josh’s preference is clear.

“I just think that it’s better to be safe than to be sorry,” he said.

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