The future of privacy at stake, argues media expert at launch of new programme in social media

30 April 2014

How will social media shape our understandings of identity and privacy in the twenty-first century? This was just one of the questions posed by José van Dijck, Professor of Comparative Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam, in a lecture held at Wolfson College this week to launch a new FLJS programme in social media.


In the lecture, entitled Social Media and the Culture of Connectivity, Professor van Dijck charted the rise over the last decade of social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn which do not just facilitate global connections, but are changing the way we conceive of privacy, identity, and the role of the people in shaping democracy. 


Professor van Dijck illustrated the influence of social media on popular culture and traditional forms of media by referring to TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year, which, in 2006 was named as ‘You’. This recognition of the degree to which the internet has empowered the individual was described as “a story of community and collaboration … the many wrestling power from the few …that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes”. Just four years later, in 2010, TIME named Mark Zuckerberg Person of the Year, the same year he controversially changed Facebook’s privacy settings and pronounced that privacy is no longer the social norm.


Professor van Dijck argued that the normalization of sharing presents challenges for the law relating to privacy, and explored the ways these social norms were being shaped by Facebook and similar platforms. She showed that, despite Facebook’s claims to “make the world more transparent and connected”, Facebook’s and Twitter’s algorithms do not simply reflect our behaviour and habits, but actively steer and manipulate social activities. Citing the 1.2 billion Facebook users worldwide, she claimed that the majority are not fully informed of the implications of the use of their personal data in a corporate environment, and that education efforts are need to fully empower citizens in the digital age.


Social capital, Professor van Dijk argued, is turned into economic capital when social space is converted from a relatively private sphere to the public space of the internet. Whilst the monetization of intimate space such as your home (through sites such as Airbnb), your car (through monetized car sharing schemes like Uber), and the like were proving popular with users of social media, this trend renders private information a public good that is corporately owned and traded, with significant consequences for the power relations between citizens, corporations, and the state.


The following day, 29 April, social media experts from the Oxford Internet Institute, the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, LSE, and the Central European University in Budapest, among others, convened at a workshop to discuss the socio-legal issues raised by the prevalence of social media. They considered proposals for appropriate regulation of social media, changes to privacy, defamation, and contempt of court laws, and the political economy of social media and its impact on political participation. A series of public lectures and workshops will be held over the coming years to explore further the influence of social media in the modern world and the implications for law and society.


A full report, podcasts, and policy briefs from the event will be published on our website in the coming weeks. Forthcoming public events include a discussion of how social media, film, and literature can enhance our understanding of international development issues.


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