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Do You Agree That Privacy Is Still a Social Norm?


Social norms govern the way we behave and expect others to behave in certain contexts. A social norm is widely accepted, though it often remains an informal agreement. Many believe that the expectation of privacy has been accepted as a social norm when it comes to sharing personal information, especially in a context we don’t consider public. We hold that privacy remains our choice, under our control, and is not automatically ceded in any context.

Privacy as a social norm can be a sensitive issue. Take, for example, the well-documented misunderstanding of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg when he said:

“People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

Though Zuckerberg only commented on shifts in our willingness to share, many heard “privacy is no longer a social norm.”

Which raises some interesting questions: Do social norms evolve over time or are there ageless, unchanging social norms? Traditional views of social norms suggest that when a new individual joins a group, they are more likely to adopt the group’s norms rather than change them. But what happens when the newcomer is a powerful form of social technology? And what happens when our understanding of privacy as a social norm is affected and even completely altered by new technology?

The Price of Deviation from the Norm

When an individual runs afoul of social norms, they can find themselves shunned by the group. The same is true of companies who abuse the trust of their users. Deviation from privacy as a social norm can come at a high cost to a company’s bottom line and reputation. Open Xchange, a technology company providing cloud-based communication, collaboration and productivity software, recently published a report examining what happens when users decide “the benefits no longer outweigh the negatives and stop using a particular online service.” Open Xchange commissioned OnePoll, an independent research company, to survey 3,000 internet users. The survey sample included 1,000 respondents each from the UK, US and Germany.

“Crossing the Line – at What Point Do Internet Users Log Off?” (PDF) provides some excellent insights into trigger points for abandonment and current attitudes concerning awareness and control of online data.

Of the people surveyed in Europe and the U.S., 22% had stopped using at least one service because of concerns about data privacy.

The following graphs from the Open Xchange report paint an interesting picture when it comes to privacy concerns, triggers for abandoning an app or service, and attitudes towards awareness and control of online data:

Percentage of people who have cancelled or stopped using at least one online account, app or service due to recent privacy concerns (p.3):


Trigger points that would convince people to stop using a particular app or service (p.8):


Attitudes to awareness and control of online data (p.10):


From the survey’s conclusion:

“We have found that web users are aware of the issues of privacy; who has access to their data and what that data is used for. And it seems that for some users, the activities of private companies, web providers and government and intelligence agencies do cross a line.”

Though we know there’s a gap between privacy awareness and users actually changing behavior (See: “Privacy is Cool”), this survey’s results show users are gradually changing their behavior, at least when it comes to leaving certain online services.

Year End Privacy Contemplation

So as we near the end of 2014, its worth spending some time contemplating how we feel about privacy and its place in society. Some questions to consider regarding your evolving privacy awareness:

1. Do you consider privacy a social norm?

2. Have your thoughts on privacy and data security changed over the past year? How? Why?

3. Have your privacy practices or behavior changed over the past year? How?

4. Under what circumstances would you delete an account? When do you feel that technology companies have crossed the line?

What will the future of privacy in 2015 and beyond hold and what part will we play? Do you agree with Stowe Boyd, the lead researcher for GigaOm Research as quoted in the recent Pew Research Study – The Future of Privacy:

“We have seen the emergence of publicity as the default modality, with privacy declining. In order to ‘exist’ online, you have to publish things to be shared, and that has to be done in open, public spaces.”

Can we resist the pressure to overshare and not be shy about being private? The evolution of privacy is up to all of us.

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