The Encore Project: and some Thoughts on Social Networking Sites

The Encore Project, with which this blog is associated, has as its objective “to make giving consent as reliable and easy as turning on a tap…and revoking that consent as reliable and easy as turning it off again”. On the 29 June I went to the demonstration at the LSE by the project managers of an online interactive prototype that will allow data subjects to audit how their data (held by a DP) are being processed – to view the categories of data, to view how often and for what purpose the data are being processed – and to withdraw consent selectively if they want to.

It is excellent prototype. Based upon investigations of the needs of ordinary people and businesses, it provides transparency and a significant degree of control over the data, while being straightforward to use. Necessarily there is a pretty big technical architecture behind the facility. The level of personal control and audit is in excess of that provided by the regulatory regime, but it would be, wouldn’t it? Well done, and encore Encore. I look forward to the next stage. www.encore-project.info/

Later on there was a public panel discussion on control of personal data, with a distinguished panel. I made a less than coherent intervention – put it down to the heat of the day- on social networking sites, so I wanted to try to clarify what I think about them. There had been a suggestion from the floor that they enabled “identity performance” – I think that was it. There may have been a reference to the work of Irving Goffman here.

I certainly don’t think these sites are an unambiguous good. We don’t know the effect of SNS’s, particularly on adolescents, on their personal development and identity, and their capacity to make and experience intimate relationships. I don’t mean by this the usual saw that the virtuality is more absorbing than reality. I mean that SNS’s provide a relationship with a peer group that is an intimate relationship as well as a public one, a sort of socialised intimacy, perhaps an effect of the high visibility of persons on the sites. But I think this is why the issue of privacy settings has only recently become apparent, because the seductive intimacy was, as it were, a very important part of the deal on offer. It wasn’t just lack of privacy awareness. Once you install the settings some of the magic of unspecified and unrestricted intimacy goes.

Adolescents are by definition confused about public and private boundaries, and the gradual access to adult identity depends upon distinguishing between them. Intimate relationships, the basis of private life and privacy, begin to form – always a difficult process, and always surrounded by anxieties. But what if SNS’s are machines for producing intimacy without anxiety, a bewildering but seductive mix of public and private, producing novel psychological and developmental reactions? What if they are one more factor in the downgrading of actual intimacy and hence privacy? And are privacy settings enough to prevent this?

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