Bookmark This is a feature that highlights new books by College of Arts and Sciences faculty and alumni, published the first week of each month. This month’s featured book is The Private is Political: Networked Privacy and Social Media (Yale University Press) by Alice E. Marwick.
Q: Can you give us a brief synopsis of your book?
A: The Private is Political: Networked Privacy and Social Media examines how our understanding of privacy has changed with the integration of social media and big data into our daily lives. In American society, we tend to see privacy as an individual responsibility. You’re responsible for managing your passwords, determining what is and isn’t appropriate to share online and configuring your privacy settings in every imaginable app. But despite all of this, what I call privacy work, it’s impossible to protect your privacy because information about you is constantly being revealed by people in your larger social network, and big data and social media technologies collect still more information and integrate that into all types of systems and apparatuses. So the primary argument is that privacy is now networked.
Privacy tends to be a fairly dry subject, but I’m most interested in how people manage privacy. I interviewed 88 people from all over the country and conducted focus groups with 40 more. The book looks at the experiences of marginalized people, how privacy violations affect their lives, and what type of privacy work they do. I delve most deeply into race, class, gender and sexuality, but everyone experiences privacy intersectionally and there’s a great deal of nuance. I most enjoyed traveling around North Carolina interviewing LGBTQ+ people about their privacy experiences. People were very generous in sharing their stories with me.
Q: How does this fit in with your research interests and passions?
A: I’ve been working on privacy-related research for years. When I was a grad student, I worked with the philosopher Helen Nissenbaum, and was her RA for her book Privacy in Context, which is a huge influence on my own work. As a postdoc, I worked with danah boyd on her study of teenagers, social media and privacy, and we drove around the country interviewing teenagers about their use of MySpace and Facebook. From both women, I learned that privacy was deeply social and contextual and imbricated with power in all sorts of ways.
All my work is about the impact of new technologies on society. Luckily, this is a gigantic topic, so I’ve been able to explore many different facets of that without getting bored. I do think this is probably all I have to say about privacy, after six years writing the book and publishing maybe 10 papers on the topic.
Q: What was the original idea that made you think: “There’s a book here?”
A: Danah and I were invited to write the lead article for New Media & Society’s special issue commemorating 10 years of Facebook, and she and I developed the idea of networked privacy together based on our fieldwork with teenagers. We were both really interested with how teens were incorporating social media into all areas of their life, and how information flowed fairly seamlessly between their online and offline social lives. And yet at the same time, every time I went to a privacy conference, there would be a bunch of dry talks about technology or privacy law and very little work on people. I wanted to center people in my work. And I especially wanted to center marginalized people because with several very notable exceptions, privacy scholarship mostly focuses on problems experienced by male, middle-class, white subjects. And those types of folks have much more privacy than most people — they live in single-family homes, drive cars to work and work office jobs, as opposed to living in a packed apartment building, using public transit and working retail or in factories or Amazon warehouses, all of which are heavily surveilled. I was absolutely horrified when I started researching class issues in privacy and the invasiveness of the systems that low-income people regularly interact with. So I kept doing qualitative studies on privacy, and danah suggested that all this data could be a book. Some of the best things in the book, like the concept of privacy work, came through the writing process.
Q: What surprised you when researching/writing this book?
A: When I started interviewing LGBTQ+ people in North Carolina, especially trans and gender- nonconforming people, I expected them to be suffering from a lot of hardship and experiencing N.C. as a very oppressive place. And that wasn’t the case at all. These interviews took place in 2018-2019, so I would expect many of them are dealing with the consequences of the enormous moral panic around trans people now, which has resulted in some truly horrific legislation. And of course, the Triangle has long been a safe haven for queer folks. But most of the people I spoke with were happily just living their lives. One young man told me he got more flak from his friends from being on Facebook (which is for “old people”) than he ever did from being trans.
Q: Where’s your go-to writing spot, and how do you deal with writer’s block?
A: I write from home at a big desk with two monitors and a desktop. My home office is painted mauve, has a lot of kitschy décor (a bust of Elvis appears in the background of every Zoom call I’ve ever been in), and is filled to the brim with stacks of books. I used to write with my laptop in local coffee shops — Open Eye and Gray Squirrel are my favorites — but I got out of that habit during the pandemic. This was for obvious reasons (everything was closed), but has persisted because my eyes got suddenly, drastically worse, and even with reading glasses, squinting at a laptop screen became deeply unpleasant.
I don’t really believe in writer’s block. You’re either working or you’re not. If it’s clear to me that I’m not in a good mental space to write, I go through easy items on my to-do list (emails to answer, paperwork to fill out, errands). If a section is sticky and not really flowing, I write a really crappy first draft (often including comments like “SOMETHING SMART GOES HERE” or “CONNECT THESE IDEAS SOMEHOW.”) It’s always easier to edit a draft than stare at a blank page. When all else fails, I grab a legal pad and write longhand. But the more you write the better you are at it, so I try to write regularly and in a variety of idioms. And I always have lots of projects going at once, so there’s usually a paper that’s in a fun writing stage that I can work on to procrastinate on the ones that are, shall we say, less fun.
Alice E. Marwick is associate professor in the department of communication and principal researcher for the Center for Information, Technology & Public Life (CITAP). She studies the social and cultural implications of social media technologies and is best known for her work on media manipulation and disinformation online, micro-celebrity, online privacy and context collapse.
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