Testing the “End of Privacy” Hypothesis
I am PI for this project, which I have conducted in collaboration with A. Casilli (Télécom ParisTech and EHESS, Paris) and for which we have obtained funding from CIGREF Foundation for a one-year work (August 2011 – August 2012).
We have investigated the so-called “End of Privacy” hypothesis, according to which our societies are experiencing a gradual, but steady erosion of the value of privacy as we know it today. Media treatments of privacy typically point the finger at online networking services such as Facebook and Twitter: the increased social connectedness of their users allegedly brings about a tendency to renounce privacy in favour of an open existence, especially among younger generations.
We aimed to assess the robustness and plausibility of this scenario, and its possible implications for policymakers, businesses, and society at large.
We have used a cutting-edge method bringing together online ethnographies and computer agent-based simulations. We first observe an actual social process, and then create a computer environment with “agents” – artificial software entities endowed with suitable behavioural rules – that interact repeatedly with one another. The intent is to observe the outcome: do we see any recognizable pattern emerge in the social system as a whole?
In this specific case we wanted to observe the way privacy is negotiated in social media. To achieve this, we first conducted a participant observation on Facebook. Then we have built a simulation. Based on actual behaviours of Facebook users, artificial agents mimic the way participants form online ties and accept to disclose personal information.
With these data, the model serves as a support for thought experiments –to see in silico the possible social scenarios arising from observed individual attitudes and behaviours, and to assess the likelihood of each of these scenarios to emerge. This method is especially useful to account for social complexity resulting from decentralised, repeated interactions among many independent decision-makers, rather than from the choices of a central authority.
In sum, our ethno-computational approach has the dual advantages of strengthening the capacity of the simulation to meaningfully account for real-world phenomena, and of widening the range and general applicability of fieldwork findings.
Presentations of our work so far:
- Cigref workshop, Paris, 14 November 2011: Our slides are available here;
- Sunbelt XXXII conference, Los Angeles, 18 March 2012: Our slides are available here.
- British Sociological Association annual conference, Leeds, 11 April 2012: our slides are available here.
- 8th UKSNA conference, Bristol, 29 June 2012: Our slides (with new results!) are here.