Some thoughts on privacy, manipulation, and social media.

Is it really absurd for people to expect privacy, honesty, openness, and other such things when dealing with social networks?  After the Facebook experiment in which 689,000 or so people had their news feeds manipulated this expectation has come to the forefront of a larger conversation regarding privacy on the net.  This is not a new topic; email was once under fire for being less than secure and thus open to privacy concerns.  When Google got into the email business this really became a concern given the scanning of email content for the purposes of displaying ads to users.  Social networks, however, are taking this to a new level.  People jump onto Facebook (and to a lesser extent, Twitter) to share their lives with people and in some cases bare all.  Things commonly posted to social networks include pictures of kids, pets, vacations, random events of life shared with friends and status updates regarding one’s current thoughts and/or emotional state.  People are invited to chat, comment on things they see both in the ‘real world’ as well as other postings on the site.  All of this makes it sound as though this social network is another means for people to have conversations with each other.  Indeed, some view their social network activity as a sort of conversation with their friends—some of whom they have never met/seen outside the confines of the network.  

All of this makes me think that expecting some of the same things we expect in other forms of conversation is not all that absurd when it comes to social networking.  The philosopher Paul Grice developed a theory regarding conversation and what people ought to expect based on what it takes to make a conversation work.  The gist of Grice’s position is that we are justified in expecting certain things when it comes to conversations with others because conversations need certain conditions in order to work.  Another way to look at this is to recall conversations where you believe the other person was being a bad conversational partner.  Having recalled an example, ask yourself what it was that this person did that made you think they weren’t ‘playing by the rules’, so to speak.  In some cases, you have people who are deliberately and boldly lying to you.  These cases are straightforward and we can say precisely what it was that was wrong (the lying).  But there are other cases where someone will speak the truth but we still find fault in what they said or how they said it.  If, upon seeing a fire, I ask “where is a fire extinguisher?” and you say “up three floors and down the hall!” when there was a fire extinguisher just behind you (presumably hidden from view by your body) then I would quite reasonably have cause to call you out for some sort of violation.  Strictly speaking, what you said is true, but it wasn’t what we might call ‘forthcoming’.  

In cases like this and others that are more opaque we find fault with the way someone is conversing with us.  It isn’t just a matter of lying or telling the truth—there are other conditions/requirements that make conversations work.  We enter conversations assuming that these conditions will hold and when they don’t we cry foul.  The philosopher I mentioned above, Paul Grice, held that we cry foul legitimately in these cases.  Some of his work dealt with the conditions necessary for a successful conversation.  He said that there are things that people just assume to be the case when talking with others, and that these things are rightly assumed because without them communication would break down.   His claim is that conversations (or communication, more broadly) is inherently cooperative and as such we assume that the other parties involved are cooperating.  He went on to detail what this cooperation involves and while it is a bit technical non-philosophers can quickly see what he was after—there are ways to systematically flout the rules of conversation by being a bad partner.  In Gricean terms, we can violate certain maxims that require us to speak only what we know to be true, to be open and straightforward, don’t be purposely ambiguous or use terms or language structures that you know will confuse or obfuscate, etc.  There are other things that Grice points out but the relevance to social media is clear: if taken as a form or forum for conversation, it is not unreasonable to assume that the conditions required for communication apply here, as well.  

This is not to say that one isn’t being a bit naïve when people decry the lack of privacy and the manipulation in the name of advertising and suspect scientific activities.  The social networks will claim that folks have agreed to these things by way of the ‘end user agreements’ and such—the legalese-laden small print that people usually click through on their way to social media bliss.  But the fact that we have a term for this (legalese) and the many arguments being made about it (even in broader circles, where warranties, contracts, and other legal documents aimed at consumers are under fire for, in essence, violating conversational rules) leads to me think that many are already seeing this phenomena and what we see with social media is an extension of a larger issue.  The manipulation of language is nothing new; we see it in politics and advertising on a daily basis.  What this Gricean approach to social media suggests is that there are many ways to manipulate people by way of flouting the conventions of communication.  By taking advantage of context and people’s desire to communicate with loved ones that are far away, to keep in touch with friends in a culture that is increasingly hectic, not to mention the very human desire to be social, organizations like Facebook run into the same sorts of problems that face politicians and advertisers.  The difference with Facebook and other social media may lie in the fact that this is a relatively new medium that strikes at the very heart of communication by preying on people’s love of new ways to socialize with friends and family.


Grice, H.P. 1975. "Logic and Conversation." In Syntax and Semantics Vol.3: Speech Acts. eds. Peter Cole and Jerry L Morgan. 41-58. New York, NY: Academic Press