Academic journal article Library Philosophy and Practice

Online Social Networking Sites and Privacy: Revisiting Ethical Considerations for a New Generation of Technology

Academic journal article Library Philosophy and Practice

Online Social Networking Sites and Privacy: Revisiting Ethical Considerations for a New Generation of Technology

Article excerpt


Before libraries can act ethically with regard to social networking sites, they must first have a nuanced understanding of the potential consequences of these sites. Social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook are ultimately motivated by profit, a goal that can undermine user privacy, and that actively relies on the sharing of personal information. In contrast, most libraries in the US have an ethical commitment to patron privacy. Yet libraries are also committed to outreach and social networking sites provide a forum where libraries can create an online presence and spread awareness about their services. These diverse motivations provide a recipe for conflict that is too often ignored. Libraries may be able to appropriate the outreach opportunities of social networking sites while simultaneously maintaining ethical standards; however, responsible appropriation of technology requires that librarians reevaluate their commitment to privacy in the context of social networking sites that have a different conceptual understanding of privacy.

Such an evaluation falls beyond the scope of a single paper and ultimately must be assessed on an individual level, according to each librarian's unique circumstances which can vary depending on the type of library and its cultural context. This paper outlines a model for thinking about these two seemingly contradictory perspectives on privacy, in the context of librarians working in the US in public or academic libraries. Despite legitimate concerns about privacy, social networking sites are not entirely incompatible with the mission of most libraries. Yet neither are they neutral spaces where libraries can develop an online presence without regard for the consequences. This paper calls attention to the potential ethical conflicts between library and social networking sites, and provides a foundation for further debate on the subject.

The benefits of maintaining a presence on these websites is clear, because they allow libraries to reach out to patrons in the world of Web 2.0, a virtual world that many patrons already inhabit with ease. Unfortunately, both of the major social networking websites in the United States today, Facebook and MySpace, are motivated by profit. This can be a problem, because their profits are dependent on the free flow of personal information about their customers. In this context, a deep understanding of libraries' ethical stance is particularly important because social networking websites represent a moving target. Social networking sites can, and do, rapidly change their specific features and privacy policies. Librarians cannot exert direct control over the social networking sites they interact with, but they can prepare themselves for potential conflicts with a firm understanding of their own ethical priorities. Combined with up-to-date knowledge about the motivations and practical consequences of social networking sites, this will ensure that libraries are prepared to deal with the consequences of using these sites.

Libraries represent a trusted resource, and they should avoid lending their credibility to institutions that fail to uphold similar ethical values. This should not serve as an excuse for libraries to ignore this technology. For many libraries, the potential outreach benefits will outweigh the concerns outlined in this article. Nevertheless, it remains vital to understand the nature of this space in order to make the best decisions for a particular library.

Libraries' Role in Social Networking Sites

Time is rapidly running out for librarians to confront the privacy issues inherent to Web 2.0 websites. A recent Pew study found that more than 50 percent of teenagers in the US maintain a presence, typically called a "profile," on at least one social networking website (Lenhart & Madden, 2007). According to a senior analyst for Forrester Research one in four Americans has a MySpace profile (Owyang, 2008). …

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