Identity, Privacy and Differences for Women Online

Lately I have been thinking a lot about identity online and how things like age and gender affect how you approach projecting an online identity. Working with a startup that is creating opportunities for kids to be digital citizens with ownershop and accountability for their online identities made me wonder about what should be encouraged and what tools we need to be creating, implementing, educating people about when it comes to managing who they are and how they will be seen online. Can teaching kids early on how to behave and what consequences can be for bad behavior, alleviate some of the issues we see with older folks, particularly women?

Many women create separate profiles for various factors of their online life; personal—sharing photos and information with friends about life, kids, family and other non-business related things; professional—building resume, professional connections, participating in professional discussion groups; spiritual—sharing aspects of spiritual beliefs with others who are like minded. There are others, of course like profiles specific to gaming or politics and other specific interests.

These facets of a person can be seen quite distinctly with women who are overtly concerned with the effects their personal and spiritual life can have on their professional acceptance and credibility. These facets are also important for women who want to participate online but who have concerns or have had experience with stalkers (in real life or online) or obsessive exes.

I attended the She’s Geeky unconference recently and was involved in a lengthy conversation about these topics. Anecdotally, the experiences of the participants fell along this model for how they presented themselves online.

Concern arises with companies like Facebook making changes to their privacy policy and privacy behaviors. The carefully crafted separations are suddenly merged and people are outed in ways they hadn’t expected or approved. This is not acceptable and we shouldn’t shrug it off as if it is.

Another interesting point to consider is that many of the web sites that promote sharing identity and information are built by men, who are often younger and single or only recently married without children. The concerns that women have about their family safety or their own safety through exposed information on the internet, never even occurs to these men as an issue.

When thinking about how to address these concerns through software offerings, some options come to mind:

  • Rather than one size fits all, allow users to create facets of themselves.
  • More clearly indicate how cross linking and sharing across services exposes information.
  • Privacy controls add complexity which can deter adoption, so a combination of efforts is needed. Clear education about how to use privacy controls and what the consequences of various actions might be can be lightly integrated as Did You Know type informative blocks of info on sites. Facebook did alert users that the privacy controls were going to change, but they were rather vague on what the consequences of doing nothing might be.

I think it is important for the larger social networks to understand that not everyone wants all the information about everything they do aggregated together. I use Linked In for one reason, flickr for another, twitter for another and Facebook for a very different reason. My network is different on each although there are overlaps. I want these places separate because frankly, no one in my professional network really cares what concert I just saw or what photos I have posted of my dog. (Of course I say that here, but in reality because of the overlaps in my network across these services, stuff bleeds across and I am not sure how to stop it).

Generational Differences

An interesting point to think about in terms of Identity and Privacy and how someone is presented on the internet are the generational differences that we sometimes see, in addition to the gender differences. Younger women are not as inclined to create facets of themselves as older women. I am not sure what the cutoff is and if regionality plays a role. Additionally, I would be inclined to bet that as these younger women marry and have children, they will start to segment parts of themselves. I think it would be interesting to see if location plays a role as well.

Identity Segregation

The two large areas where I think people still make anonymous profiles or pseudonymous profiles, are around spirituality or religion and politics. Of course, I have no data about this but it would be worth exploring further. There are most likely large groups of women who totally segregate their online activity in these spaces from their professional or even personal generic online activity. These topics can be highly polarizing and despite anti-discrimination laws, people still let their own beliefs and attitudes affect how they relate to others. Subtle and subconscious changes in behavior can happen even when trying hard not to let it.

As more and more companies develop robust social experiences in their products and people spend more of their free time online, the need to have layers of privacy controls becomes even more important.

Issues in Being Open

The other aspect to this identity dilemma lies in the connectedness of information and data across services. As a designer in this space and fully bought into the Open philosophy, I believe that data wants to be free. Data should be owned by its creator (the individual) and should be able to be taken across services easily. The ease with which this can be done, without granular controls – which can hinder adoption and usability – can directly impact the blurring of segregated identity. Therein lies the dilemma. It can’t be solved by one company but should be considered as part of these open initiatives.

There is a certain amount of responsibility that lies on each individual to make sure any segmentation of themselves stays segmented even if it means, for now, keeping up with all the changes that some of these companies insist on making. It also may mean, not using the services of other companies until they add in layers of acceptable control.

current: experience matters design :: senior level interaction design and systems strategy consulting former partner, tangible user experience; Yahoo! founder of the public and internal Yahoo! pattern library. design director of ued teams responsible for designing solutions across key yahoo! platforms: social media, personalization, membership and vertical search.

1 Comment

  1. great topic and very timely.
    I know of several women who have been stalked by people who have found them through their online presence. I think this issue will become more and more critical especially in urban areas where, as the demographic numbers clearly tell us, more people are single, living alone and have little community support systems.
    Ah such is the tech chicken and egg…
    Perhaps this is one of the drivers behind social networks in the first place? As we “device” ourselves away from face to face interactions are we also needing things like Twitter and Facebook and Foursqaure as more of a mechanism to *feel* like we are talking to someone because our society has created the circumstance in which we have no one to *really* talk to?

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