This project examines the nature of privacy in communicative, social, and technological contexts, and is based on the premise that the ubiquity of technology and networked environments has changed multiple aspects of communicative processes. These include the realms of social interaction, the medium by which humans communicate, the means by which information about people is collected and stored, and the visibility of individuals in social worlds. These changes call into question the conceptualizations and boundaries of what constitutes privacy in todayâ€™s world. Craigâ€™s (1999) metatheoretical traditions of communication theory are used to reconceptualize privacy, yielding a framework with seven distinct lenses: privacy as identity; privacy as relational(ity); privacy as social; privacy as cultural; privacy as autonomy; privacy as mediated; and privacy as discursive. These multi-theoretical approaches provide a structure or logic for organizing new understandings for privacy theory in the 21st century. Following the development of this framework, two empirical studies were completed: (a) a discursive examination of the meaning of privacy for young millennial adults; and (b) a social network analysis of the social structure of privacy. The results provide some intriguing insights.
First, the analysis of the social structure of privacy provides preliminary evidence that privacy does not influence the size, density, or positioning of individuals within a network, although it does reveal unique signatures that suggest privacy may influence the clustering and compartmentalization of groups within networks. Second, a survey of privacy attitudes confirms young adults have strong concerns about privacy, and especially with identity theft, electronic fraud, and controlling access to their identities and information. Finally, an inductive thematic analysis of discourse provides confirmation that privacy is meaningful to young adults, and is defined and articulated in multiple and sometimes dialectic ways, between: (a) identity and relational; (b) states of autonomy (being in control) and mediation (being surveilled by others); and in (c) material and discursive ways. Cross-cutting these dialectics are themes of cultural and contextual elements of privacy.
The contributions of this project are both theoretical and methodological. This is one of the first empirical studies to examine the discursive meaning of privacy to young college-age adults within the context of sociotechnical realms and the first empirical study of privacy from a social networks standpoint. Theoretically, I provide new conceptual frameworks for theorizing about privacy in communication contexts, and expand understanding about how privacy is enacted in social contexts through the methodological use of social network analysis. These understandings contribute to both social theory and communication theory. Finally, new methodological approaches are introduced for the access and processing of large-scale network data from social network sites that may be of interest to scholars.