Redefining privacy and anonymity through social networking affordances
First Monday

Redefining privacy and anonymity through social networking affordances by Angela M. Cirucci

Social networking sites allow people to create, broadcast, and interpret the self in new and evolving ways. While early online social media studies praised the Internet for providing an anonymous space in which to experiment with identity, more recent research suggests that social networking sites have become not anonymous, as they compel users to perform identity in new ways. Through a novel application of affordance theory, this paper argues that instead of attempting to apply outdated definitions of privacy to social networking spaces, we should instead be discussing our right to anonymity. I argue that privacy is immaterial due to the fact that from the moment we log in and interact with a social media interface, we have shared some type of personal information with someone. Anonymity, on the other hand, is defined as the unlinkability of our many identifications. Thus, instead of attempting to define ideas such as “personal” and “private,” we should instead fight for the separation of selves, both at the social and institutional level.


Digital affordances
Narrative identification
Anonymity and privacy: New definitions for our digital selves
Discussion: A new understanding of identification anonymity




The recent ascension of social media sites has illuminated the significance of self-presentation as users turn to these sites as places to create, maintain, broadcast, and interpret their identities. Although numerous scholars have focused on how users perform identity within the sites and their related breaches of privacy, few studies examine the ways in which the architecture of these sites provides the guiding light for users’ identity performances. That is, identities online are the “composite result of structure, design, and organization” [1]. Like all environments and their structures, social networking sites grant their users certain affordances (Gibson, 1979), and these resources are invariably couched in political and economic powers (Winner, 1980).

While early online social media studies praised the Internet for creating a safe and anonymous space in which to experiment with identity (e.g., Turkle, 1995), more recent research suggests that social networking sites have become “nonymous,” or not anonymous, as they compel users to perform identity in new ways. For example, users of Facebook “show” more than “tell” their identities via visible networks and profile pictures (Zhao, et al., 2008). Indeed, current social networks endorse digital embodiments of the off-line self, often through features such as uploaded photos and GPS check-ins. Many users may find these new abilities, or affordances, useful. However there are also implications for the creation and perception of self.

A goal of this theoretical paper is to begin to fill critical gaps in the social networking and identity literature by developing new conceptions of identity, anonymity, and privacy that are more amenable to the blurring of digital spaces with off-line spaces, instead of simply modifying the definitions relevant in off-line situations. As Meyrowitz (1985) argues, in each new social situation, the aggregate of two previous situations will not suffice; instead, a new definition of the situation must be formed. Thus, new digital spaces call for a reimagining of definitions. These new definitions are integral in recognizing how users are altered by sites’ architectures and their affordances.

Before scholars can expect to adequately analyze the ways in which digital media users perform the self in digital spaces and the implications that these spaces have socially and culturally, they must first adopt a more rigorous understanding of social media affordances. In particular, to better assess the current conflicts between Internet usage and privacy, I propose that the conversation regarding Internet privacy becomes one of Internet anonymity or pseudonymity. Thus, the main goal of this paper is to argue for a new conception of digital anonymity that is more relevant than our current digital privacy discussions.

I begin by providing a review of background literature regarding affordance theory and link it to more contemporary discussions that include digital affordances. Next, I provide a brief summary of narrative identity and state the importance of understanding our digital performances as on-going and ever-evolving stories. Third, I move into my argument for a new definition of anonymity informed by previous discourses surrounding privacy, anonymity, and online spaces.



Digital affordances

Gibson (1979) proposes that animals in nature are only allowed, or afforded, what their environmental structures permit. Affordances and the lives of the animals they constrain are inextricable, and it is essential for animals to perceive the provided affordances because they offer both benefits and limitations. Evolutionarily, comprehending affordances allows animals to realize their surroundings, to find ways to survive, and to avoid injurious phenomena.

Applying affordance theory to humans and the structures they create is not that different (Gibson, 1979). The environment remains the same; humans have just added onto it. These created structures are inescapably non-neutral; they have been created by people who have the power to create them and thus contain implicit ideologies and beliefs. Indeed, Winner (1980) argues that artifacts have politics and that our modern systems “embody specific forms of power and authority” [2]. These structures enhance experiences for some, while limiting them for others. In this sense, structures afford certain things to certain people.

Clearly then, these created structures influence our choices for the creation and maintenance of the self. When performing identity, Goffman (1959) argues that we are actors with different social situations representing our stages. The self needs to be validated through these social performances. However, actors are limited to finite roles. Humans are bound to social constructs and moral rules; actors “are constrained to define themselves in congruence with the statuses, roles, and relationships ... [according to] the social order” [3].

In his Discipline and punish, Foucault (1979) notes that those with the most power are the ones who create these social standards; as the status quo we simply work to reify their norms. Utilizing Bentham’s panopticon, for example, Foucault explores how institutionalized structures guide identity performances toward habits that are most beneficial to the state. As he explains, punishment turned from torturing bodies to training bodies. As actors, we internalize the “right” way to do things. The panopticon-style prison [4] forced prisoners to self-survey because they never knew when a guard was watching them. Thus, even if no one is watching us, we still feel as though we are under the “gaze,” shaping our performances to coincide with accepted norms.

Importantly, Foucault (1979) recognizes that the panopticon (both theoretical and actual) is not just a place for observation, but also for experimentation. Those with the power to drive the panopticon can learn how to alter behaviors and train humans. “Thanks to its mechanisms of observation, it gains in efficiency and in the ability to penetrate into men’s behaviour; knowledge follows the advances of power, discovering new objects of knowledge over all the surfaces on which power is exercised” [5].

These arguments become especially pertinent when applied to online realities. Media in general create spaces where power is decided (e.g., Castells, 2007). The introduction of participatory media led users to feel as though they have a hand in the power flows that, with traditional mass media, were previously out of their grasps. Identity online became to be defined as customization (Marwick, 2013). With Web 2.0, users could tailor spaces and feel a sense of ownership and power in the new process of not merely creating identity but broadcasting it.

In dialogue, Neff, et al. (2012) discuss the possibility of applying affordance theory to the study of online media structures. Previous conversations had warned against technologically deterministic language — faith in user agency and knowledge was high, and academics and users alike did not want to think that technologies were their directors. Perhaps this position was too strong, causing us to give too little respect to the power not that technological tools hold, but to the power held by those people who conceive of, design, program, and maintain these tools. Tools are programmed to render social change (Neff, et al., 2012), even if that is not how those of us who are not programmers would like to view them.

The affordances presented in online spaces are similar to off-line affordances, but present “distinct affordances” [6] that more directly shape identifications. Although it may be extreme to say that these affordances strictly dictate behavior, it is accurate to say that through calculated suggestions, they shape engagement (boyd, 2011; Papacharissi, 2009) with the site, with others, and with the self. It is not that technologies force themselves onto people, but that technologies work to set parameters regarding what acts of identification are possible within each digital space (Hutchby, 2001).

Behind the scenes, these structural affordances alter how we control information and broadcast the self. Information is amplified, recorded, and spread in new ways. Our identifications exist in perpetuity, constantly transformed and interpreted in new ways with each new broadcast. A display of the self can be replicated an infinite number of times, and it is impossible to differentiate the original from the copy. And, beyond all of these changes to how our selves are maintained, we can be searched. All of our information is not just recorded, but archived in such a manner that sophisticated algorithms can point us to the different iterations of our selves with one click (boyd, 2011).

Thus, I argue that social networking structures are inaugurating a new culture — a new way of thinking about identifications and social interactions. Because so much of the actual processing of information is done behind the scenes, these cultural functions become invisible and naturalized. While sites strive to become “user-friendly” (Cohen, 2012), they are really just clearing away “pesky” coding structures that the majority of users feel they might not, and should not be obligated to, understand. Thus, a part of this new culture is to remain ignorant of the structures that shape our performances.

While sites work to become more user-friendly, the general user becomes less and less aware of how the spaces they use every day actually work. A site like Facebook, for example, employs “object-oriented programming” (OOP). In the most basic terms, OOP works as such: objects are created with specific parameters — they are given inherent adjectives and verbs that describe them and that can be called upon at any time in the code, making it easier to insert these objects since they need only be defined at the top level of the program.

This method allows designers to build cascading collections of objects that are each more specialized than the previous. Whoever takes part in this coding must make moral decisions in defining what an object even is and what properties are inherent to it. Therefore, consider this question: What is a user? Digital affordances can only be programmed to represent a user with a finite number of “adjectives” and “verbs.” Of course those involved try to cover as many possibilities as they can, but they are also fighting time- and budget-based demands. In the off-line world, we can define new “object” parameters; but within social media structures, “user” can only mean so many things.

As Cohen (2012) discusses, these new structures are not only reshaping how we perform, manipulate, and broadcast the self, but they are also representing realities in new ways. Recognizing digital affordances is not only important for understanding how the functionalities offered to us affect our interactions and broadcasting of the self, realizing digital affordances in online social networks also helps us to recognize the changes happening to our representations.

The more that we incorporate digital technologies into our daily lives, the more we choose to see through them instead of examining their power to represent reality in new ways (Verbeek, 2011). Galloway (2012) argues that Web 2.0 networking sites should be understood as mediators, not media. They exist to filter information, allowing some aspects of the target ontology through while constraining the broadcasting of other aspects. The ability for the structure to act as mediator and make decisions regarding what is salient highlights the encoded values that structures possess. Thus, a structure such as Facebook is “an ethic ... because it is premised on the notion that objects are subject to definition and manipulation according to a set of principles for action” [7]. That is, Facebook is not concerned with trying to know reality; it is focused on “how specific, abstract definitions are executed to form a world” [8]. We are thus inclined to enter into a moral argument when discussing how selves are created and broadcast through the site (e.g., Cohen, 2012; Galloway, 2012; Verbeek, 2011).

I do not mean to argue that the technologies themselves are not important. But instead, I argue that we do not pay enough attention to those people who are “behind the curtain.” In everyday life we do not feel like we are in discourse with the designers, but we are in discourse with the interfaces, indirectly connecting us to their human programmers. As Raynes-Goldie (2010) describes, many users have no problem recognizing social privacy, or the ways that they withhold content from different people in their lives. But, the general social media user’s conception of institutional privacy — the ways in which they organize their content as it deals with companies — is severely flawed, if not nonexistent.



Narrative identification

Understanding what social networking sites afford us is integral because so many people trust these spaces during identity performances and realizations. Through social networking sites, users tell their personal narratives. Indeed, many sociological identity scholars argue that identity is narrative (e.g., Bamberg, 2006; De Fina and Georgakopoulou, 2008; Freeman, 2006; Holstein and Gubrium, 2000). The mind works in narrative form and therefore it is how we make and understand our world (Bruner, 2004). Narratives are integral to understanding identity because they are where “discursive practices and discourses in practice meet” [9].

Our identities are not static (e.g., Brubaker and Cooper, 2000; De Fina and Georgakopoulou, 2008; De Fina and Georgakopoulou, 2012; Schrag, 1997) but on-going processes. To help illuminate this, scholars such as Brubaker and Cooper (2000) opt to use the verb “identification” instead of the noun “identity,” deeming the latter overused and representative of a shallow condition. Indeed, it is clear that our identities play out on social networks just as narratology scholars describe — we are constantly telling our narratives and recreating the self through both conversations with others and conversations with the self.

Narrative and the social

Narratives are grounded in social interactions; they are created in specific moments and are not recalled through some static list of criteria (Bamberg, 2006). Instead, they are based on the current context in which a teller is situated. We realize concepts, and thus tell stories, through social spaces (De Fina and Georgakopoulou, 2012). Sites like Facebook and Twitter promote the creation of digital connections and the broadcasting of personal narratives as primary goals for their users. These sites feel natural because we are already accustomed to telling our narratives in social spaces (De Fina and Georgakopoulou, 2012; Hammack, 2011).

Off-line, identifications are created by pulling from larger societal and cultural norms. These predefined labels are necessarily not neutral — they represent those identifications that are available in the current context and related metanarratives. Online, however, these larger societal and cultural norms from which users are pulling to perform the self are not equivalent to the choices available in the off-line world. Users are bound to performing a self that, for the most part, coincides with social media’s perceptions of identification. For example, Facebookers are bound to Facebook’s expectation for concepts such as “authentic” and “private.”

While people rely on their conversations with others to understand who they are, online social networking site users are constrained by the sites’ available affordances in this process. One large hindrance is the ever-decreasing space to be anonymous. Thus, users are constricted to telling their narratives to audiences devoid of context — people from multiple social groups are forced into one space, and these context collapses drive users to not only perform shallow versions of the self but to also fear identity experimentation and play.

Narrative and the self

The process of telling a narrative is not merely describing the self. Narratives are important to identification because the process of telling a story about oneself is how we comprise our identities (Redman, 2005). The teller gets to be both protagonist and reflexive narrator at the same time (Bruner, 2004). Therefore, she has the ability to understand herself in new ways as she chooses the aspects of her story.

Constructing a narrative not only provides the teller with a space to be reflexive, it also allows for identification in the first place. As Bruner (2004) explains, we become the autobiographies that we tell. Each time we speak about ourselves we are choosing a certain path that is a new constitution of the self. Instead of understanding narrative as a character creating a story, the reverse is true — the story creates the character (Schrag, 1997).

The popularity of social networking sites has altered the reflexive identification process. Users can now look to the site to learn about their own selves. I argue that the interface acts as an interactive mirror that constantly reflects narratives and identification choices back to users. For example, algorithms take user input and summaries of users’ networked interactions and reflect content back to them that has been calculated as “fitting” for each user. However, as discussed above, these human-programmed choices now have the power to define what users are and into what category they belong. Thus, this reflection is not neutral. Because the structure, acting as a mediator, filters information and represents identifications back to users in calculated ways, the content with which each user is provided in the reflexive process is tainted.

Insofar as narratives become our identifications, it is salient to explore how social networking sites’ representations of our identifications alter our identity performances as a whole. If social media users employ sites’ versions of their identifications in the self-constitution process, then they are succumbing to Facebook’s altered representation of reality. Thus, instead of digital spaces affording solace from the off-line world and allowing users to play with identifications within anonymous spaces, current sites are increasing the constraints on users and only providing affordances that follow capitalistic and consumeristic trends. Therefore, as I argue in the subsequent section, instead of discussing “privacy” online, we must fight for our right to anonymity in the digital identification process.



Anonymity and privacy: New definitions for our digital selves

Many scholars (e.g., Newton and Morgan, 2004; Pfitzmann and Hansen, 2006; Shmatikov and Hughes, 2002; Wallace, 1999; Zhao, et al., 2008) attempt to define anonymity. In general, anonymity has been described as the inability to link any one trait, or set of traits, back to the originator of those traits. Therefore, an agent remains anonymous when one identification, for example as a PETA activist, cannot be linked back to her other identifications, for example as a mother and as a professor.

I would be remiss to not discuss privacy within a discussion of anonymity since scholars often use the two terms interchangeably. Many scholars (e.g., boyd, 2008; Liu, et al., 2011; Moore, 2008; Papacharissi, 2009; Shmatikov and Hughes, 2002) have sought to define privacy in both online and off-line spaces. Traditionally, privacy has been understood as the right to be left alone (Warren and Brandeis, 1890). However, electronic media work to rearrange the traditional boundaries of public and private (Papacharissi, 2009).

Notwithstanding, privacy is generally recognized as the right to control personal information (e.g., Moore, 2008). The expectation is that agents will self-manage their right to disclose content [10]. Practically, privacy in online spaces has proven difficult to acquire. For example, although Facebook provides users with choices regarding different levels of privacy, a 2011 study reported that Facebook’s privacy options regularly do not match user expectations (Liu, et al., 2011). It seems that policies presented by social networking sites as protecting user privacy actually exist to protect the site and to allow marketers to collect data that will generate the most profit (Fernback and Papacharissi, 2007).

The issue surrounding online privacy and anonymity rhetoric is really that the two ideas are conflated even though they are independent from one another (Shmatikov and Hughes, 2002). It may help to first define privacy. Let us consider two different types of privacy. From this point forward I will refer to the first type as Privacy and the second as privacy. Big “P” Privacy is the general notion for which we fight. Much like property rights, we have come to expect “a certain level of control over the inner spheres of personal information and access to one’s body, capacities, and powers” [11]. Indeed, off-line I operate under the axiom that there are places I can go and actions I can take to ensure that information I do not want shared remains private. For example, I can write in a diary, I can close the door when I go into the bathroom, and I can place my medicine in a brown paper bag after I purchase it, hiding my prescription and thus my ailment.

Privacy also gives me the agency to choose when I will enact my right to privacy. Little “p” privacy is the smaller, every day instances. This means that I can choose from whom I want to disclose which information. For instance, I can write a letter addressed to only one person, I can allow my partner in the bathroom with me before I close the door, and I can share with family the diseases for which I have to take medicine. Little “p” privacy is relevant in that if I do not want certain people or groups of people to know certain things, I can control their access.

The expectation of big “P” Privacy, and therefore our right to enact privacy whenever we want, is valid in the off-line world because, as far as we know, the universe is not recording us. We can choose to not disclose personal information, no matter how we define “personal.” Therefore, I can do as I wish when I am alone, without the fear of there being a record of my actions. It is important to note that both privacy and Privacy are about content off-line — the things that I choose to disclose, and the things that I choose to not disclose.

Anonymity on the other hand can be defined as non-identifiability within some set (Pfitzmann and Hansen, 2006). That is, anonymity is context dependent. Consider the following definition, based in my above discussion of narrative identification:

Assume there is a universal set of identification traits that exists from which agents pull each time they perform an identification. Each agent then is constituted of a finite set of traits, i.e., they are comprised of a set A comprised of the traits a1, ... , an. Each identification then is some non-empty subset of A.

Therefore, anonymity is the “non-coordinability” [12] of two or more subsets. That is, a user can freely perform one subset without the fear of an audience or context collapse. Goffman (1959) describes this as actors having different stages on which to perform identifications in front of different audiences. The right to “audience segregation” is essentially anonymity.

Nissenbaum, in her 2010 book Privacy in context, constructs a similar conception of anonymity in online spaces. She argues for a new understanding of “privacy” that takes “contextual integrity” into account. Our social lives rely on the norms and expectations that have been crafted and maintained throughout time. These social mores exist in explicit contexts. “What people care most about is not simply restricting the flow of information but ensuring that it flows appropriately[13]. Therefore, Nissenbaum is arguing that online contexts should not be broken down and should remain true to their off-line equivalents.

Although I agree with Nissenbaum that context is integral, I fear that she is implying that off-line contexts will easily transfer to digital spaces. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. As Meyrowitz (1985) explains, with each new social situation comes a new definition. Therefore, if a patient is online accessing her medical records, an example that Nissenbaum explores, she should not expect to have the same power over her information as she has off-line. Perhaps it will be more power, perhaps it will be less. The amount of power is not really the issue. What does matter is that the moment that her medical information is moved online, it is just different. The actual content is different and the way that she, and others, interacts with it is different. Thus, contexts are extremely important to anonymity, but we cannot expect them to be the same contexts that we experience off-line [14].

It seems that there are two particular, special subsets that complicate my definition of anonymity: the visible and legal identifications. This is perhaps because visible and legal identities are the most static identifications. Changing visible or legal identities is seen as invasive or drastic and is rare, especially if it would completely alter a person’s recognizability. Much privacy rhetoric has come to be centered on these notions. A site like Facebook, for example, insists that they keep your information private because they do not connect the plethora of information they aggregate to your real name or address (Turow, 2011). Thus, they are not only not respecting your right to privacy, they are also not respecting your right to anonymity. The site is disclosing information to other parties that you perhaps only intended for certain groups, or yourself. Additionally, they are aggregating your information and not respecting your right to some non-coordinability of your identifications.

I do not mean for this paper to include an exhaustive discussion of privacy. What I do intend to show is how anonymity is different than privacy, and why it is actually a more pertinent topic of conversation when discussing online realities. Here is the reason why: the notion of Privacy in today’s online world is immaterial. The instant we suspend disbelief and interact with Web 2.0, social networking sites, or user-generated content sites, we give up our right to Privacy.

As I discussed above, Privacy makes sense off-line because the universe is not recording our actions. The “keys” to who we are for others exist in a small, finite list. They may be physical features such as hair color, or personality features such as gregariousness. Perhaps we remember a person because of her job or because of a store she frequents. Online however, we are being recorded. Almost every cursor move, mouse click, word typed, picture uploaded, product purchased, and file downloaded can be logged. Additionally, the list of “keys” or identifiers seems infinite. All of the aforementioned actions and more become part of our identifications. That is, content is defined much more broadly. Thus, when we perform in the digital world, we have already chosen to disclose a multitude of content to someone.

A study released in late 2013 reported that the majority of Facebook users regularly self-censor their posts. That is, they alter original text that they input, or they simply do not submit their typed text at all. Golbeck (2013), in a post, writes that, as a byproduct, this study reveals that Facebook has the ability to collect metadata for content (such as for status updates or comments) that users assume is Private. Soon after, I noticed that a Twitter debate spawned. Golbeck’s Twitter followers were questioning her decisions in representing Facebook’s abilities. Was Facebook only collecting metadata? Or were they actually collecting (and reading) censored and deleted content?

Golbeck (2013) notes in her article that a concern with Facebook’s structure is that perhaps their Data Use Statement does not adequately account for this type of data collection. She writes:

It is not clear to the average reader how this data collection is covered by Facebook’s privacy policy. In Facebook’s Data Use Policy, under a section called “Information we receive and how it is used,” it’s made clear that the company collects information you choose to share or when you “view or otherwise interact with things.” But nothing suggests that it collects content you explicitly don’t share. Typing and deleting text in a box could be considered a type of interaction, but I suspect very few of us would expect that data to be saved. When I reached out to Facebook, a representative told me that the company believes this self-censorship is a type of interaction covered by the policy.

The problem with this debate is that users and scholars alike do not often view the site and its structure as a mediator. As our devices evolve our mediators and methods of input evolve. Computers were first paired with keyboards and mice. Now, methods of input include technologies such as voice recognition, touch screens, and eye-trackers. Thus when a site says “interaction,” and as the Facebook representative that Golbeck (2013) spoke with noted, it covers anything that you can do with the structure and its interface. In other words, there is a forgotten difference between interacting with Facebook versus interacting with people via Facebook. Facebookers are always interacting with Facebook, even if they are not interacting with people via the site.

A more interesting, and salient, discussion is how these structures alter user expectations and performances, both online and off-line. If a user expects that just typing, but not submitting, on Facebook is, as Goffman (1959) would label it, a backstage performance, it seems they are mistaken. Perhaps unfortunately, it is not surprising that Facebook’s representatives do not worry themselves with these miscomprehensions.

A part of the Twitter debate was to question if Facebook only collects metadata or if Facebook collects content. However, I am not sure why this distinction matters. Golbeck (2013) notes that the site has the capabilities, even if they are not currently employing them, to archive unsubmitted content. We can see similar capabilities in something like Gmail’s ability to automatically save “draft” versions of e-mail messages. Therefore, should we not just assume Facebook will, at some point, if it is not already, utilize them? Further, even if Facebook never looks at content, it seems highly probable that the future, more powerful social networking sites that replace Facebook will. Hence, what we should be thinking about is the culture that Facebook is creating when it comes to what P/privacy means, what interaction is, and what can be deemed “content.”

When exploring identifications online, each piece of content is less important than the aggregation of that content. Because anonymity is the non-coordinability of traits, what we should be talking about is how to ensure that we can perform different selves while maintaining segregated audiences. Disclosing information is still our choice; we could choose to not disclose content online by no longer employing online spaces or by creating online selves that are completely separate from off-line selves. On the other hand, if we are already immersed in the online world, the discussion should be about anonymity.

This is certainly the case insofar as sites like Facebook are used in the spirit in which they were originally created — to interact with people that users already know off-line (boyd and Ellison, 2007). These “anchored” relationships lead to what Zhao, et al. (2008) coin as “nonymous,” or not anonymous. Facebook asks users to compile many different identifications onto one site — this, as previously discussed, they define as authenticity. Users are compelled to disclose information regarding personal achievements, family events, occupational milestones, popular culture “Likes,” and so on. Traditionally, these subsets of identification remain largely separated.

Notice how Privacy is completely off the table since the minute we enter any information onto the site, we have disclosed it to at least Facebook, and most likely to other third-party sites. And, also take note that because the site compels us to interact within anchored relationships, it is unlikely, and in Facebook’s favor, that we would represent a self that is completely different from any one off-line self.

My argument is not to say that spaces do not exist where anonymity is possible. What I am arguing however is that digital structures like Facebook’s are cultivating a culture that does not see the value of anonymity. Yes, we have many discussions surrounding privacy. And, yes, these conversations are usually ambiguous because we are not sure how to define privacy online — most likely due to the fact that what content is has changed. But, in truth, it is anonymity onto which we are trying to grasp.

Our current obsession with Big Data, as Cohen (2013) explores, allows for hidden research agendas, underlying ideologies that pick up on “patterns,” and, consequently, constructed subjectivities. More important for this discussion, Cohen notes that “privacy shelters dynamic, emergent subjectivity from the efforts of commercial and government actors to render individuals and communities fixed, transparent, and predictable ... Privacy also shelters the processes of play and experimentation from which innovation emerges” [15]. Yet, in relation to my definitions of privacy and anonymity, Cohen is actually writing about our right to anonymity.

Turkle (1995) touches on a similar sentiment in her Life on the screen. Given anonymous, online spaces like Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) in which to perform, users could act out aspirational selves, learning as they stumbled through these safe environments. These spaces, remember, were not Private — users divulged information on a daily basis, speaking about family troubles, medical ailments, or aspirations to perform a new gender identification. Privacy does not shelter experimentation, anonymity does. In fact, to be able to play with desired or hidden selves, the first step must be to disclose information.

Indeed, the right to anonymity allows people to reinvent the self. Working within a world where you are almost guaranteed that there will be no coordinability to your other identification subsets is empowering (Zhao, et al., 2008). Anonymity is integral because it preserves the validity and the integrity of the identification process. The right to the separation of identifications allows agents to freely experiment — anonymity is possible because people are a plurality of traits and because these traits do not have to be connected (Wallace, 1999).



Discussion: A new understanding of identification anonymity

The nature of our interactions has changed and thus so should how we understand privacy and anonymity. I argue that privacy is about content while anonymity/pseudonymity is focused on context and the separation of identifications. Online, who we are — the “content” of each “user” — has shifted. Everything we do in digital spaces, both through interaction with other digital beings and interactions with the interfaces themselves, is recorded and archived. Thus, it is futile to talk about privacy. Instead, we should be fighting for some unlinkability of our many digital and corporeal selves. With this as the effort, we could then focus on creating spaces that allow us to manage our social contexts and to play with experimental and aspirational selves.

A key piece of my proposed definitions is the recognition of social networking sites’ affordances. In realizing that whenever users perform online they are already suspending disbelief and in realizing that whenever users perform online they are already suspending disbelief and allowing sites’ filters to interpret their content, we also realize that applying non-digital definitions to digital beings is ill-advised. We should understand digital spaces as not mutually exclusive from off-line spaces, but inherently different simply because of the quantifiable properties that are introduced.

As Galloway (2012) suggests, we should constantly be thinking of social media spaces as mediators that are not programmed to “accurately” represent off-line realities. The affordances granted to users in online spaces are finite, and inescapably non-neutral — they are created by people who have specific values, beliefs, experiences, and goals. Because of this, we cannot have the same expectations of privacy — the moment that we interact with the interface we have provided some content and thus disclosed potentially private information. Instead, we should recognize that what interaction is has broadened and that the separation of our identifications and contexts is more important than each piece of personal information on its own. Our identifications are on-going narratives that are constantly changing. Thus, a single “key” to who we are is far less important than the evolving identifications that we regularly construct with many of these keys through space and time. End of article


About the author

Angela M. Cirucci received her Ph.D. from the School of Media and Communication at Temple University and is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University’s Digital Scholarship Center. As of Fall 2015, she will be Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Kutztown University. Angela’s research explores social networking sites and the ways in which their structures and affordances influence identifications. She is particularly interested in Facebook’s influence on authenticity, agency, and anonymity. Angela has presented her research at many conferences including the International Communication Association, National Communication Association, and Media Ecology Association, where she was awarded the 2012 Linda Elson Top Student Paper for her “First Person Paparazzi.”
E-mail: angela [dot] cirucci [at] gmail [dot] com



1. Papacharissi, 2009, p. 205.

2. Winner, 1980, p. 121.

3. Branaman, 1997, p. xlvii.

4. The panopticon-style-prison was a circular prison with a guard tower in the center. All inmates’ cells could be seen by the guards in the tower. However, the inmates could never tell if the guards with actually in the tower at any time. Thus, the inmates were conditioned to police themselves, fearing that the “gaze” of the guards was always on them.

5. Foucault, 1979, p. 204.

6. boyd, 2011, p. 39.

7. Galloway, 2012, pp. 22–23.

8. Galloway, 2012, p. 23.

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11. Moore, 2008, p. 420.

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13. Nissenbaum, 2010, p. 2.

14. I want to be careful here to not make it seem as though I think that online and off-line worlds are completely separate. The lines are blurred between what is “off-line” identification and what is “online” identification. Indeed, it is rare that people every actually “log out” of social networks, and consequences move between the spaces as expectations and norms transcend their originating platforms. However, it is important to remember that digitized information is inherently different and that the affordances we are given to interact with digitized information are also different. Therefore, in this explication, I find it important to set up a dichotomy. These blurred spaces just call for new contexts that take into account the blurred spaces.

15. Cohen, 2013, pp. 1,905–1,906.



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Editorial history

Received 16 December 2014; accepted 26 June 2015.

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“Redefining privacy and anonymity through social networking affordances” by Angela M. Cirucci is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Redefining privacy and anonymity through social networking affordances
by Angela M. Cirucci.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 7 - 6 July 2015

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