Privacy and SNS: generational differences in managing privacy and disclosure

The balance between privacy and disclosure of personal information is one of the most relevant issues raised by SNS. boyd (2010) highlighted that SNS are characterized by the blurring of public and private. Papacharissi (2010) described SNS as places privately public and publicly private.

The paper “Privacy and SNS: generational differences in managing privacy and disclosure” presented during the conference Social media: Transforming audiences (London 2-3 September 2013) is aimed at discussing some theoretical issues related to privacy and Social network sites and at presenting some preliminary results of the analysis of the interviews carried on in Milan during the research project Online social relations and identity: Italian experience in Social Network Sites.

The management of privacy in SNS is one of the challenge that users have to face. They can use privacy tools provided by the SNSs software, but – according with Altman (1975) – they also have to manage the boundaries of the different network of “friends” through disclosure and hiding of information and protect their “expressive privacy” (Papacharissi 2010).

Privacy – intended as “the claim of individuals, groups or institutions to determine for themselves when, how and to what extent information about them is communicated to others” (Westin 1967) – includes the right to an “inviolate personality” (Johnson 1992) and the right to control the sharing process of one’s contents in order to avoid the “context collapse” described by boyd (2008).

Privacy in SNS then is a question of “audiences” (public or private profiles); “contents” (who can access a specific content, for example in friend’s lists) and “sharing” (who can use my contents). SNS users have to manage complex issues of hiding and disclosure in a communicative space (the social networks) intended to promote sociality and information sharing. They have to re-define the boundaries between public and private contents according to the definition of “what is” the social network communicative space.

Defining communicative spaces and boundaries between public and private is a cultural issue and different scholars highlighted that privacy in SNS is affected by individual’s culture (Dourish & Anderson 2006; Lewis 2008) or by the belonging to different “cultural units”.

Among different “cultural units”, generations can be relevant in understanding differences in “privacy cultures” of SNS users especially regarding the “expressive privacy” (the protection of the process of personal identity building from third party’s interferences – Tufekci 2008).

According with the preliminary analysis of the interviews we can say that some results can be interpreted as the traces of different generational “privacy culture”: values and norms related to privacy management that characterize generational identities.


Alongside these “cultures” privacy emerges as a balance between the benefit and the pleasure to share informations (disclosure) and the control over personal informations (hiding) and the definition of the benefit of SNS use changes according to different “generational cultures”.

According to our preliminary results we can say that for the “early boomers” the benefit is the opportunity to discuss in a public space about personal interest; for the “generation x” is the “edonistic” dimension of building identity tales; for the “generation y” is the benefit of sociality and for the “generation z” is the benefit of self-expression and performativity.

In conclusion we can say that privacy is a “social issue” as it is both managed socially as “once private information is disclosed or others are granted access, the information moves from individual ownership to collective ownership” (Child & Petronio 2011) and related to a shared culture as – for example – the “generational” one.

Nicoletta Vittadini – Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore



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