Daniel J Solove’s “Gossip and the Virtue of Knowing Less” raises important issues concerning privacy, issues that have become increasingly complicated in the advent of social media. Solove argues, in consonance with Helen Nissenbaum, that privacy is context-specific, and because of their context-relativity, all privacy cases cannot be treated in the same way. After pointing out the social, ethical, and philosophical conundrums surrounding gossip and privacy, Solove suggests that users of social media need to decide on various counts to protect their own and others’ privacy. Some of the things they need to pay attention to, as Solove puts it, include the knowledge and evaluation of the purpose, context, audience, and appropriateness of gossip: “the who, what, and why of it” (74). This is an important suggestion from rhetorical and genre perspectives, however, there are issues that need to be addressed.
First, the very idea of audience has remained historically illusive. Who constitutes an audience? The matter is more complicated in the social media site and further complicated by the competing and conflicting interests, norms, values and rules regarding privacy. Privacy norms “vary across and within social groups,” Nissenbaum reminds us (129). Given this difficulty to identify what constitute privacy norms and expectations, to whom and so on, Solove’s suggestion would be far from effective.
It would be good to have read other chapters (where Solove promises to provide more privacy protection tips) to make a non-partial and within-the-context comment about the efficacy of her suggestions, but I find it increasingly difficult to believe, given frequent privacy breaches in the social media, that only being careful on the part of users is enough. The fact of the matter is those who design features and filter information have the ultimate power to influence and shape privacy.
Organizations want to secure their right “to improve efficiency!” and consumers often claim the right to be free of unwanted solicitations, to control or limit the flow of their personal information. The tension remains. While the comparison of the nature and effect of gossip in the traditional and new space (blogosphere) provides a coherent thread to the discussion, it misses out on the various privacy concerns in other spheres, say a bank, which demand an entirely different set of privacy literary for users to be able to even understand the terms. A quick look at the “terms and conditions” page of any software reveals how little control users have over any system.
An equally troubling for me is the comparison Solove makes between the nature and effect of gossip in the past and now. Judgments made about the past based on today’s context may be partial. It’s true that any privacy breach in the past would spread among a close-knit circle, but the impact would be no less in its own time and context.
Nissenbaum, Helen. Privacy in Context. Stanford, CA: Stanford Law Books, 2010. Print.
Solove, Daniel J. The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print.