Whether Facebook was actually hit by a bug or not, the controversy over old posts on the social network serves to remind us that the notion of personal privacy sits rather uncomfortably with a website whose purpose is essentially to make things public. It also perhaps indicates that people’s attitudes to privacy may have changed.

Nowadays the Public and Private Spheres “Leak into One Another”

Aurélien Fouillet, a Doctor in Social Sciences carrying out research at the Sorbonne’s Centre d’Etude sur l’Actual et le Quotidien (centre for studies into contemporary society), describes himself as a “sociologist of the imaginary”. Here he talks to l’Atelier about personal identity and use of social networks.

 L'Atelier: Would you agree that the outcry over the revelation that Facebook might have made some private messages public recently shows that notions of privacy have changed?

Aurélien Fouillet:Well, there hasn’t really been any sharp switch in people’s attitudes or in the way they live. Facebook certainly gets more attention now than a few years ago but at the end of the day don’t people swap the same kind of stories – rumours, tittle-tattle and so on – on Facebook as they once used to down at the local pub or in the schoolyard? People talk without really saying much, simply for the pleasure of conversation, as a form of social communion. Or you share photos taken at parties among friends or family groups. There’s nothing new there, these are just modern-day forms of social exchange, cultural changes in line with the contemporary imagination.   

What we are seeing however is that today people’s private lives are leaking into the public sphere and vice-versa, especially when it comes to one’s working life.  In Europe, especially in France, the workplace has until recently been a thing apart, delineated by specific timing. When your set working hours are done, you’re not supposed to work any more. But today this set rhythm is changing and breaking up. When people are at work they have a number of different windows on to other, personal activities – Facebook, LinkedIn, online games, etc –and when they’re at home they still tend to keep an eye on their work email box.

Does that mean then that nowadays we just have one single identity, combining at the same time public and private, personal and professional?

Well, identity is in any case a construct. According to traditional Western thinking, a person’s identity is one and indivisible. But it’s largely the work you do that structures your social identity. Nevertheless we do see some behavioural differences from age-group to age-group.   If you ask a 50-year-old person: “So what do you do, then?” s/he’ll tell you what his or her job is – doctor, lawyer, sociologist, or whatever. A younger person might reply that s/he’s a World of Warcraft player. In reality, your identity is something that you construct and present to others.  The modern word persona comes from the Latin personare, which originally meant to put on a mask and play the part of a character in Greek or Roman tragedy. So the actor took on the identity of the character whom he ‘impersonated’ on the stage.

Today social network users have a whole range of potential identities available to them, which they can actualise depending on the situation in which they find themselves. And it is the degree of openness and honesty shown by each individual user that marks the fault line between privacy and public information. On Facebook, each person creates whatever identity s/he wants.  Look, even Edgar Allan Poe has an account. This implies a real transformation in the way people’s identities are being constructed.  But you’re in control of the process only as long as you’re the sole source – which is certainly not the case on the social networks. So people create a degree of closeness with their various ‘friends’ but still very few make use of the full range of functionalities available on Facebook.

Given this concern that private information may be divulged, do you think people will use these social platforms less or at least be more reluctant to hand over the sort of personal details that would help commercial brands to target them?

I don’t think so, no. Sure, this particular occurrence was unexpected and Facebook users weren’t exactly delighted about it but this type of phenomenon is hardly unknown in the world of social media. I really don’t think people will be less willing to share information or that this occurrence is going to change the way people use Facebook.  Social networks only existent for and through the communities that use them. If a given platform doesn’t fit the bill any more they’ll simply switch, as they did with Second Life, but they will continue to share personal information on the Web.  Moreover, thanks to the growth of crowdsourcing, users are now for example generating content for brands.  So the consumers are explaining to the company how it can meet their needs.  The consumer is acting as a brand partner and even helping to create brand statements.  It’s not the end of social networks but perhaps rather the end of marketing that we’re going to see!