U. professor studies privacy on social sites


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Photo by Scott Tsai |

Calvin Kwon, an Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy sophomore, browses the Internet. Research by University Professor Jack Bratich focuses on how college students interact and engage on social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter.


From posting a status about what they had for lunch or commenting on a close friend's profile picture, the world of social networking sites have seemingly become a regular part of people's lives.

Rutgers College senior Ricardo Mercader said many of his friends are always on such social networking sites as Facebook, posting constant statuses about their day.

"Sometimes, they just put every single idea that they have on their mind," he said. "They draw it out into notes almost."

The desire to connect with others in the community, open up to new experiences and interact with a person after a face-to-face meeting are all enhanced by the use of social networking sites, said Jack Bratich, an associate professor in the journalism and media studies department

"This doesn't always mean the best parts of people come out," he said. "All of the difficulties that come with social interactions also get a new platform — jealousy, judgment, self-doubt, rage, callousness, violence."

This nonchalant use of social networking sites is an area of focus for Bratich, who says the inclination to share experiences with friends and colleagues is not unique to these sites.

"College life has traditionally been a time for young people to experiment with and discover new things about themselves," he said via e-mail. "This is not only an intellectual process but a social one — meeting new kinds of people, sharing living spaces, joining organizations. Social media easily integrates into this time of life."

Bratich focuses his research on the politics of network culture and is working on an article entitled "User Generated Discontent," which examines the social networking site Twitter and social movements.

He is also composing a book entitled "Reality Programming," which analyzes reality television but also considers social media as a type of "social software" that programs everyday lives.

Despite what side comes out on a social networking site, Mercader said a student must realize they are using a site opened to the rest of the digital world.

"You have to always be aware that what you put on your Facebook account is seen by all your friends and can be seen anywhere," he said.

School of Arts and Sciences senior Nicole Buffington said this brings up the issue of privacy, adding that it is up to the student to make sure they filter who sees their profile page.

"If people are concerned about their privacy, they should look into the privacy settings," she said. "Maybe to some extent, Facebook should let people know what they are. But other than that, it is pretty self-explanatory."

Bratich said less privacy could sometimes be helpful, allowing students or users to express themselves and overcome shame or excessive inhibitions. But he added it could also be negative.

"Too much exhibitionism can be its own trap. It used to be the case that self-expression was tied to freedom," he said. "Now it's a command — ‘You must express yourself!' — and usually via the restricted templates and interfaces provided by corporate social media."

By continuingly posting information to a Facebook page, corporations and government agencies are using these "data selves" to their own benefit by gathering personal information for targeted advertising, Bratich said.  This is of much more concern when thinking of privacy and social networking sites.

"This culture focuses so much on ‘identity theft,' but it's mostly about peer-to-peer theft by individual criminals," he said. "We don't typically think of the broader implications of everyday identity theft of ‘digital selves' by corporations."

Rachel Mitchell, a School of Social Work graduate student, said this is a reason why she sparingly uses Facebook and does not like the idea of personal information being open to the public. But she said the same could not be said for her friends.

"They might not see the long-term effects of it," she said. "But later on, they are going to regret that they put so much of themselves [out there] for everyone else to see."

Although the average age of Facebook users increased since its launch in 2004, there is still more focus on how college students use it because the site originated as a university-only closed network, Bratich said.

"Even though it has opened up to others, this early group has defined much of how we think of social networks generally," he said. "Given the excitement and volatility of college life, it makes sense that a lot of the more interesting innovations and extreme experiences would come from it."

This use of social networks by college students was recently magnified and received national attention.

University first-year student Tyler Clementi posted a Facebook status on Sept. 23, which said he intended to jump off the George Washington Bridge. This came soon after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, used Twitter to inform his followers that Clementi was having sexual relations with another man.

Although this brings up the question of whether social networking sites should be monitored, Bratich said a proposed alert system would provide a plethora of false alarms.

"A culture based on fear and constant demands for security is a weak one. The constant stream of alerts can be numbing and counterproductive," he said. "If there's a clear emergency, someone would hopefully call 911."

Mercader expressed the same sentiment, saying social networking sites should not and could not be regulated.

"I don't even know how they would be able to do it," he said. "Whatever the person wanted to put up there, they will put up there."

With the world of social media tangled into the daily life of University students, Bratich said the question of whether a social networking site could disappear is the same question scholars asked with the emergence of print 500 years ago.

"While the specific forms, products and platforms will change, the desire to communicate and connect through technology will persist," he said.

This is why many people are already going through what is called "social networking fatigue," which Bratich said is an example of how social media will mutate in the future.

"Social media's changes will depend on the ability of users to make the most out of its best aspects — creating in common, learning about themselves, enhancing their powers to act — while avoiding its worst — exhaustion, exploitation, violence," he said.


Devin Sikorski

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