What is Private in a Social Network?

Mobile technologies have made so many great advances in recent years that it can be difficult to remember a time when we all functioned without our personal cell phones. Transforming from Alexander Graham Bell’s original telephone in the 19th Century, to the Motorola “Brick” of the 1970s, to the smartphones of today, the concept and capabilities of the phone have provided the most stunning changes to our ideologies of what mobile media are. But as these advancements in mobile technologies have allowed for the development of new social networks, Lee Humphreys (2010) believes that several concerns have arisen regarding the balance between privacy and surveillance. Consumers (who are now expected to double as producers) need to be at least conscious, if not worried, about the personal information that is available about them in the online world.

To explore the concerns about privacy in the world of digital telecommunications, we must first go back to the invention of the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone – a device that was not very mobile – in 1876, and its first widespread use was as a one-to-one voice communication device.

'It's a great invention, Mr. Bell, but the ringtone is sort of boring.'

In 1973, Martin Cooper made the first cell phone call on the Motorola Dynatac (Ling and Donner, 2009). This marked a critical shift in the concept of the telephone because, while the communication was still one-to-one, that “one” was no longer expected to be a place. Phones and phone numbers could be connected to specific people, and this trend became more solidified as mobile phones became standard among consumers.

Mobile technologies continued to develop, phones became smaller and more user-friendly, and texting was widely accepted as a standard form of communication by the end of the 1990s (Goggin, 2006). The phenomenon of texting meant that our communication was starting to leave a trail, as these texts, unlike voice conversations, could be saved in our phones to be read at a later date. However, at this point in history, these connections were still only connecting individual people.

This changed in 2000, with the launch of Dodgeball, one of the first location-based social networks (Humphreys, 2010). Dodgeball worked by letting each user create a network of friends, and then send a text message to that entire network to “check in” to any establishment. Humphreys (2010) notes that the network did not utilize any GPS technology: it was simply based on those mass text messages so that friends could inform one another of their whereabouts in the hopes of meeting up with anyone who happened to be close by. The technology may not have been as advanced as what is available today, but this marked a shift in the use of the mobile device because people were now communicating in a one-to-many function.

This led Humphreys to perform research on the social implications of the newly formed concept of a social network, culminating in the article “Who’s Watching Whom? A Study of Interactive Technology and Surveillance”, published in 2010. By interviewing frequent Dodgeball users, Humphreys identified three kinds of surveillance that became apparent for most users (2010).

The first form of surveillance is that of the voluntary panopticon: all of these check-ins were being sent to the people within a user’s social network, but they were also being sent to Google, the company that owned the Dodgeball service. Humphreys found that people appreciated the benefit of sociality between users and were not concerned about their privacy because they had the choice to check-in only when they wanted people to know where they were (2010). The theory of the panopticon is that people will supply this information because they feel that the benefit outweighs any cost that might come with it. More frequent use meant more data that could be surveilled by Google.

Kyle Schuerger social media privacy facebook

The next form of surveillance that Humphreys identifies is lateral surveillance, in which users oversee one another’s behavior (2010). The point of Dodgeball would be meaningless if users did not watch one another to see where they would be checking in, but this meant that users also needed to check in on a regular basis to give their network content of which to keep track. Similar to their lack of concern that Google could oversee their movement, users had little fear of potential stalkers because they were only supplying the information they deemed necessary (Humphreys, 2010).

The last form of surveillance is self-surveillance, in which each user thinks of Dodgeball’s service as a kind of “social diary” (Humphreys, 2010). This somewhat narcissistic form of surveillance allows people to easily keep track of where they have gone and what they have done, and it can act as a motivation to keep checking in.

Humphreys’ research is useful because it points out a consistent trend that members of social networks are more concerned with their privacy in regard to other users than they are with the faceless corporations they are supplying with a constant stream of data (2010). Every member of Dodgeball (and any other social network) becomes part of a digital enclosure, which “generates information about behaviors, motivations, and desires that is valuable consumer data” (Humphreys 2010).

The article may seem outdated because newer social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and even Dodgeball’s successor Foursquare have taken networking to the next level, allowing for communication on a broader, many-to-many level. And they all come with the added ‘benefit’ of GPS technology, which became more commercially useful after President Bill Clinton made it readily available to the public in 2000 (GPS.gov, 2013). However, Humphrey’s analysis of this most basic social network pinpoints the core social meanings that come out of mobile technology. And that is important because today, one of the greatest uses for smartphones is to access these social networks. Future research could take into account the many different networks available on the various app stores, as smartphones have full access to the World Wide Web.


A greater variety of social networking options on mobile devices means that users are supplying corporations with a greater variety of personal information that can be stored in large databases saved for a long period of time. It is safe to say that smartphones will continue to expand their capabilities, and as they do, users need to be careful what information they are supplying as they produce content for their respective networks to consume. While it does not need to hinder one’s use of a service, privacy should always be of concern. Large corporations are consuming all of the content too, and once a person’s digital footprint has been made, it can never be erased.

Works Cited

Baloo. (2014). Alexander Graham Bell Cartoons. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from Jantoo Cartoons: http://www.jantoo.com/cartoons/keywords/alexander-bell

Goggin, Gerard. (2006). Cell Phone Culture: Mobile technology in everyday life. London: Routledge. Chapter 2, 19-40.

GPS.gov. (2013, September 24). Selective Availability. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from GPS.gov: http://www.gps.gov/systems/gps/modernization/sa/

Humphreys, Lee. (2010). Who’s watching whom? A study of interactive technology and surveillance. Journal of Communication. 61(4). P. 575-595

Ling, Rich and Donner, Jonathan. (2009). Mobile Communication. Malden, MA: Polity Press. Chapter 2, p. 30-48.

TEDxTalks (Director). (2012). Why Google won’t protect you from big brother: Christopher Soghoian at TEDxSanJoseCA 2012 [Motion Picture].

TheDailyDose.com. (2011, August 16). This Is Your Privacy Online. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from The Daily Dose: http://thedailydose.com/comic/this-is-your-privacy-online/


5 thoughts on “What is Private in a Social Network?”

  1. The idea that “once a person’s digital footprint has been made, it can never be erased” is fairly frightening! Just thinking about how many stupid, stupid things I’ve personally Tweeted/Tumbled/Reddited that anyone could find if they searched hard enough is making me cringe. These social networks were created when we were adolescents, so how is life going to be for the next generation, being born into a world where these sites are already established? It almost seems like they’ll just come out of the womb with a digital footprint.

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