CSCW 2014 paper: “You can’t block people offline”: Examining how Facebook’s affordances shape users’ disclosure process

I’m very proud of this qualitative paper I worked on this spring with UMD iSchool student Jinyoung Kim and will present at CSCW in February (in Baltimore–woot!). This study analyzes a robust qualitative dataset I gathered in 2011 as part of my comps but had to put aside when I began my dissertation research. So I was very excited to finally be able to dig into the 26 interviews that I *knew* held such rich insights about SNS users’ disclosure and privacy practices, their perspectives on their network and how they manage that network, as well as the cognitive thought processes behind the interactions (or lack thereof) that occur on the site.

For this paper–the first of at least two analyzing this dataset–we focused on how users balanced disclosure goals and risks by first identifying the goals and risks they perceived on the site (applying Omarzu’s disclosure decision model as a guiding framework) and then exploring the various strategies users employed to manage risks they associated with sharing information through the site. We categorized these strategies into four types:

  • Network regulation strategy: These behaviors limit the official recipient of disclosures and include leaving Friend requests pending, defriending, and hiding. Notably, many participants referenced pressure to accept Friend requests (or conversely, to not defriend someone they wanted to) because of their relationship with that person. This could be a classmate, the husband of a best friend, or a neighbor, but in these cases, the participant said s/he couldn’t engage in boundary regulation due to the nature of the offline relationship.
  • Targeted disclosure strategy: These behaviors involved sending content to a segment of one’s network, either by using the Friend List feature or using the advanced profile settings to place individuals or groups on a Limited Profile. In addition, people used Friend Lists to restrict specific people or groups from seeing content; for example, one user maintained a “don’t see” list that couldn’t see any of her status updates.
  • Self censorship strategy: These behaviors ranged from disclosure decisions resembling Hogan’s lowest common denominator approach to a more broad-based self-censorship in which users chose not to share certain types of content with anyone on the site. As the sample for this study was comprised of graduate students (master’s and PhD), many were motivated by specific self-presentation goals and strived to keep their profile as free from “drama” as possible.
  • Content regulation strategy: These behaviors include moving content from public to private channels (on Facebook or elsewhere) or communicating on the site in code, much like danah boyd describes in her work on social steganography. Some participants differentiated between the types of information they shared through public channels (e.g., Wall) and private channels (e.g., private messages), but a few said they regularly used these private channels to keep up-to-date with a small group of close friends. Likewise, a rarely mentioned strategy was to interact through the public channels but to talk in code, as one participant described when telling a story about how she and her friends talked about a professor they weren’t fond of by calling him by a made-up name (e.g., Dr. X).

Overall, this study expands our understanding of the disclosure process in online environments, which contain a number of unique affordances that affect how people think about and make decisions related to what and with whom they should share personal information. This study also has implications for research in the area of context collapse, especially when considering the various strategies individuals employed to manage the diverse groups of Friends they had on the site (the average number of Friends per participant was 500).

You can read the full study here and I hope to see some of you at CSCW in February!

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