The More We Share, the More Privacy We Want

Social media users want privacy, but a study indicates that oversharing betrays this desire.


Social media users constantly grapple with the issue of online privacy. And despite the fact that users express a desire for more privacy, they don’t use the tools provided because they’re too complicated. Still, users are apparently sharing more than ever before. New York Times contributor Kate Murphy says this oversharing is the primary cause of a lack of privacy.

Murphy points to a German study indicating that the more information a person shared, the more their desire for privacy climbed. According to the lead author of the study, Sabine Trepte, the cause was that users shared so much of themselves and got so little in return.

Trepte told Murphy:

It’s a bad deal because what they get is mainly informational support like maybe a tip for a restaurant or link to an article. What they don’t get is the kind of emotional and instrumental support that leads to well-being, like a shoulder to cry on or someone who will sit by your bedside at the hospital.

However, social media is a participatory activity, so users often felt left behind the crowd if they didn’t share themselves like this, and the cycle repeated. Murphy notes that when you take data mining into account, the effect is even worse.

“That’s why it feels like theft when someone tells your secrets or data miners piece together your personal history — using your browsing habits, online purchases and social networks — and sell it,” Murphy writes. Data mining is an unequal trade when it comes to posting about every detail of your life, and even if you amass plenty of likes, the element of human contact is absent.

In addition to the psychological and sociological factors that make users feel a loss of privacy, the social media infrastructure itself isn’t helpful. Users are aware of their security sins, but often they go uncorrected because the tools provided aren’t clear or their value isn’t properly understood.

Another point of note is that users are flocking to anonymous apps to share even more about themselves, perhaps because the format feels both private and intimate. However, the data miners and hackers are usually right behind the trends as they develop, and anonymity is not privacy.

Users want privacy, but their own behavior betrays them. Whether it’s oversharing, choosing weak passwords, discarding security tools or misunderstanding what privacy is, users find it hard to retain their privacy. But the tools are available, we just have to use them.