Why Teens Are Innovators Of A New Public Form Of Privacy

It may seem like teens are always over-sharing without a thought. But in a world where opting out of online culture is hardly an option, many take a far more sophisticated view of privacy than adults give them credit for.

Why Teens Are Innovators Of A New Public Form Of Privacy
[Image: Teens on phones via Shutterstock]
The following is an excerpt from It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by youth culture and technology expert danah boyd. Copyright 2014 danah boyd. Reprinted courtesy of the Yale University Press.

Taylor is not one to share, and if she had her druthers, she wouldn’t tell her friends much about what’s happening in her life. She under­stands that her friends mean well, but the Boston-based white 15-year-old is a reserved person, and she doesn’t like it when people are “in [her] business.” To combat nagging questions from friends and classmates, she has started creating a “light version” of her life that she’ll regularly share on Facebook just so that her friends don’t pester her about what’s actually happening. Much to her frustration, she finds that sharing at least a little bit affords her more privacy than sharing nothing at all.


She’s not alone. Many public figures find that the appearance of unlimited sharing allows them to achieve privacy meaningfully. Heather Armstrong, a well-known blogger referred to by her nick­name “Dooce,” once remarked: “People I meet tell me, ‘It’s so weird I know everything about you.’ No you don’t! Ninety-five percent of my life is not blogged about.” Through the act of sharing what appears to be everything, bloggers like Armstrong appear to be vul­nerable and open while still carving off a portion of their lives to keep truly private.

In a world in which posting updates is common, purposeful, and performative, sharing often allows teens to control a social situation more than simply opting out. It also guarantees that others can’t define the social situation.

Sitting in an afterschool program in Los Angeles, I casually asked a teen participant why she shared so many embarrassing photos of herself on her profile. She laughed and told me that it was a lot safer if she shared her photos and put them in context by what she wrote than if she did not because she knew that her friends also had embarrassing photos. They’d be happy to embar­rass her if she let them. But by taking preemptive action and mock­ing herself by writing dismissive messages on photos that could be interpreted problematically, she undermined her friends’ ability to define the situation differently. After explaining her logic, she contin­ued on to explain how her apparent exhibitionism left plenty of room for people to not focus in on the things that were deeply intimate in her life.

In most cases where people share to maintain privacy, they do because they do not want someone to have power over them. Perfor­mative sharing may or may not be healthy. For example, I’ve met les­bian, gay, and transgendered teens who extensively share to appear straight so that people don’t ask about their sexuality, and I’ve met abused teens who tell extravagant stories about their lives so that no one asks what’s really happening at home. Issues emerge when teens start to deceive in order to keep the truth private. But by and large, when teens share to create a sense of privacy, they are simply asserting agency in a social context in which their power is regularly under­mined. The most common way that this unfolds is when teens system­atically exclude certain information from what is otherwise a rich story. For example, plenty of teens tell their parents about what hap­pened at school without telling them information that would reveal that they have a crush. On one hand, these teens are hiding, but on the other hand, they’re sharing in order to hold onto a space for privacy.

Privacy is not a static construct. It is not an inherent property of any particular information or setting. It is a process by which people seek to have control over a social situation by managing impressions, information flows, and context. Cynics often suggest that only people who have something to hide need privacy. But this argument is a dis­traction. Privacy is valuable because it is critical for personal development. As teenagers are coming of age, they want to feel as though they matter. Privacy is especially important for those who are marginalized or lack privilege within society. Teenagers have not given up on pri­vacy, even if their attempts to achieve it are often undermined by peo­ple who hold power over them. On the contrary, teens are consistently trying out new ways of achieving privacy by drawing on and modern­izing strategies that disempowered people have long used. Rather than finding privacy by controlling access to content, many teens are instead controlling access to meaning.

It’s easy to think of privacy and publicity as opposing concepts, and a lot of technology is built on the assumption that you have to choose to be private or public. Yet in practice, both privacy and pub­licity are blurred. Rather than eschewing privacy when they encoun­ter public spaces, many teens are looking for new ways to achieve privacy within networked publics. As such, when teens develop inno­vative strategies to achieve privacy, they often reclaim power by doing so. Privacy doesn’t just depend on agency; being able to achieve privacy is an expression of agency.

About the author

danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.