Who is watching you? Facebook and surveillance

It’s the end of another semester of teaching about digital communication and working/playing in the online space to a cohort that is primarily from the so-called Millennial generation (18-35), also described as digital natives*.

In the last tutorial, we had a final chat about what the students learnt from the course and we also asked students to fill in an informal survey** about what they liked about the course and what we could do to improve it.

Who is watching who?
Who is watching who?

Some of the answers surprised me, and one in particular. One of our course topics is Digital Issues: surveillance and privacy and we had lots of comments in class and on the survey about how they are now more thoughtful about what they share on social media.

Remember, this is a generation that has enthusiastically embraced social media and sharing their lives online and, according to Mark Prensky (digital native/digital immigrant provocateur), this generation should be digi-savvy and understand the implications of an online presence.

But when we talked in class about how much of our lives are surveilled, by governments as well as commercial entities such as Facebook, and how much of their lives can be seen, there was shock.

Surveillance and Privacy is a massive topic – think Government surveillance and laws currently going through Parliament/NSA/Edward Snowden/companies and their ‘reward’ cards (aren’t Woolies generous giving us discounts … oh, wait)/biometric identification. The argument is that we live in a “newly dangerous age”, according to Attorney-General George Brandis, and an increase in surveillance, with the corresponding decrease in privacy, will keep us safe.

But I’m just going to touch on Facebook in this post.

A few years ago, readers were horrified when Mia Freedman ‘confessed’ to looking at the online presence of job applicants who applied to work on her blogsite MamaMia and she rejected several because of the content on their Facebook page. These days, if an employer doesn’t look at an applicant’s online presence, most would think they aren’t doing their job properly.

When this MamaMia example was used in the lecture, students were shocked. There seems to be a disconnect with some people in regards to public and private on Facebook and other social media, particularly when it comes to realising that you may not be in control of who is watching you. If you are able to look at what others are doing online, why isn’t there the connection that others can look at you, including unexpected viewers such as employers?

A/Prof Marj Kibby and I have just started a research project looking at what Millennials share on social media, focusing on Facebook at the moment, and their attitudes to surveillance and privacy in this space and while the project is very young, there are some interesting findings so far (more on that in a future post).

What I can say is that there is a broad range of understanding and awareness in this age group of who is watching who on social media.

A final note … there were several comments in that last tutorial and in the informal course survey about how students now thought a bit more carefully about what they uploaded to their social media sites.

So, if we are getting our students to think a little bit more about what they are doing online, I’m happy.

*Digital natives is a term coined by Mark Prensky where he claimed that people born after 1980 “have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age” (2001, p. 1) leading them to become what he calls native speakers of digital language. People born before that date he called digital immigrants because they, like immigrants to a country, had to learn the language and they learnt it with an accent. The common understanding is that if you were born after 1980, and thus a native, you should be more adept at all things digital and immigrants struggle. Research has shown that this is a problematic assumption.

**Thanks to the students for filling in the feedback form. While we had the usual grumbles about the lecture time (8am on a Monday is rough), assessment timing/lack of info/relevance and not enough/too much class discussion, etc. there was some wonderfully positive comments about the lecture, assessments, class discussion, etc. as well as the teaching staff and content.


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