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Don't think privacy, think identity

by Sam Ladner on January 30, 2009 · 5 comments

in goffman, product design, social media

The digital availability of social information has lead many to think it’s a crisis of privacy. It is not; it is a crisis of identity management. Designers of online profiles should think about privacy as the management of identity, which can be an easily damaged piece of social information. Users who can control access to any “stigmatizing” social information have absolute privacy.

Social theorist Erving Goffman’s work on identity can help us design better and more private online profiles. What is “stigmatizing” social information? This is the tough part: it changes depending on who is involved. For example, a teardrop tattoo may provide status inside a prison, but on the face of a defendant in a court room, it is a stigma. Goffman points out that social actors conceal “stigma symbols” in some contexts, but these become “status symbols” in other contexts.

Designers of online profiles should recognize then that what is “embarrassing” changes depending on the context. There is simply no way to predict all the possible social contexts that any given person will find themselves in, so there is no way that a designer can accurately predict a “privacy breach” of digitally available information. Hence the confusion and hand-wringing over Beacon, Facebook’s privacy-busting advertising system. Instead, designers should create a framework for users to manage their identities.

How is identity management achieved? Designers should offer users the following:

  1. Concealment tools: users should be able to disguise or conceal any single piece of social information. This means that “my interests” should be singular items that can be turned on and off.
  2. Low-burden social network filtering: some social information only becomes embarrassing in particular social contexts. Designers must allow users to sort or filter their social contacts depending on how they know them. Make this interaction easier and low burden, and users will happily sort their friends from their family, their co-workers from their acquaintances.
  3. Reduce the ability to collate social information: Goffman points out that one of the main problems for stigmatized identities is what he calls “know-about-ness.” How much access do people have to the sum total of an individual’s social information? How readily accessible is all of that information? How easily collated is it? For example, if your golf buddies can find out that you like to cook, you take Japanese rock gardening classes AND you take tap dancing on Friday nights, the sum total of that information could be stigmatizing (but only while playing golf). Good designers would make that collation difficult.
  4. Allow quick, effortless and PERMANENT erasure: We are only now learning how embarrasing a decade’s worth of personal information can be. All too often, designers make it too difficult for users to easily delete their personal information. Make password retrieval easy. Do not require people to remember ancient email addresses. Provide 1-800 number access for “identity emergencies.” And finally, put users’ social information firmly in their own hands, not on your servers.
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Categories: goffman · product design · social media

{ 2 trackbacks }

social identity design « exde
February 17, 2009 at 7:42 pm
A note to the Y: Please use my data for good, not evil « It happens here: Consumer-centric Innovation in Charlotte and beyond
June 4, 2009 at 6:51 am

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 exde February 17, 2009 at 8:28 pm

I agree. I’m very interested in the emotional experiences created when humans interact with information, and I’ve been struggling with balancing privacy and social desires using social media’s limited tools. Your identity management framework is illuminating, thank you!

Designers, businesses, and users should also be aware of the U.S. Federal Trade Commissionís Fair Information Practice Principles. I posted further info and comments about this at


2 Peter Flaschner February 18, 2010 at 9:10 am

Interesting points Sam. I’m not sure I’m with you on reducing ability to collate social information. I suppose this should be a feature that the individual chooses to allow/disallow. But without it, we’d give up some of the discoverability and wonder that makes Twitter et al (occasionally) magical.


3 Sam Ladner February 18, 2010 at 9:16 am

Oh no, I completely agree you should be able to collate — if you want, and in the way you want it. That serendipitous experience you describe is absolutely one of the delightful things about social networks. That said, however, you need to think like you’re designing a person, not a system. So construct it to avoid embarrassment, and allow users to either know or at least guess what embarrassment is possible.


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