Bill McGeveran on Facebook, Context, and Privacy

William McGeveran, a professor at University of Minnesota Law School, points to this troubling story about a Florida State professor who made each student read aloud his/her Facebook profie, which noted how “the girls [sic] whose hobby was “being slutty” was particularly embarrassed…”

A similar thing happened during a public event showcasing the final projects for class I taught a few years ago. One student’s project was to assess to privacy implications of social networking sites, so he printed out the Facebook page of each student in the class and distributed them at the public event. His fellow students were aghast that their profiles, while (relatively) openly displayed online, were now being distributed on paper.

While these examples seem like lessons on how one needs to be cautious of the personal information posted on social networking sites, McGeveran correctly points out how the professor’s actions (and the student’s in my class) violated the contextual integrity of the original posts on the Facebook site:

Compelling students to read their Facebook profiles in class like this wrenches personal information out of its proper context and puts it in a radically different space with different conventions and assumptions. Furthermore, social networking sites have privacy settings — maybe this woman took advantage of them and restricted access to her profile to her friends. And finally, changing context converts jokes and irony into something else. Acting as if everything you say could come out in a job interview would reduce our conversation to platitudinous pap. And that’s what Facebook is, a form of conversation.

Well said.


  1. You remember at the IINW conference where a member of the audience recounted details gleaned from a google search of the speaker’s name, including that she “consorted with lesbians.” Her parents were in the audience. McGeveran nails the strange vindictiveness of those with different privacy norms on those with less restrictive norms. Context indeed.

    Also, hi!

  2. I remember that as well – it was a troubling moment, one I won’t forget soon. Thanks for the links, especially to the contextual integrity paper..that will be very useful to me.

    Hope things are great at Yale!

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