Skip to 0 minutes and 1 secondHi there. So in this week, we're going to focus on three topics that are of particular importance to users of all social media-- that's education, business, and in this video, privacy. And once again, we're going to see how the case of social media in China really challenges a lot of our prior assumptions. By now, many people in urban China have become familiar with these Western concerns. But local traditions are very different. Traditionally, Chinese people would regard anything that was hidden from the public gaze as a really bad secret, and as something they really shouldn't do. Sorry, Xinyuan, can you please explain further? Do you mean that people in China traditionally see privacy as a bad thing?

Skip to 0 minutes and 48 secondsWell, I would go further-- the very concept of privacy, at least as we know it, did not exist for most people in traditional Chinese society. Because people usually lived in big families with shared domestic spaces, nobody thought individuals need or want to have a private space. And in this small factory town nowadays, people still share space. And family members will sleep together in a single room. And people walk into each other's places without knocking. So in a way, social media and smartphones, where people can record their private thoughts and keep secrets in a relatively private environment, turned out to be the first time people have ever experienced something we would call privacy.

Skip to 1 minute and 38 secondsNot just in China, I think in much of the world-- say, South Asia-- traditionally, the family was more collective. And the idea of the sort of individual privacy was not particularly common. I think England was historically rather different in the concern for things like the autonomy of the individual. And if you put that together, then you'd say that yes, OK-- maybe privacy has decreased through social media in England. But for much of the world, social media has actually increased people's experience of privacy. Yeah, I totally agree, Danny. I think privacy is always a really relative thing.

Skip to 2 minutes and 15 secondsSo for example, on the previous quiz that we did, we saw how for people in rural China, it's very common for them to share their social media passwords with their friends and with their relatives, which creates a feeling of trust and affection between them. And another example is how people in China very rarely actually use their real name or their real photo on their social media profiles. So online anonymity is yet another example of privacy. I see now how the Chinese case poses a fundamental challenge to how we see privacy. But so far, we have discussed individual and personal privacy, but I'm sure that people are concerned about surveillance of the state and other institutions, as well.

Skip to 2 minutes and 57 secondsWhat do you think? That's actually a really, really good question, Elisa. And of course, the Chinese state has developed actually quite advanced systems to monitor what its citizens are doing online and on social media. But actually, in the case of my own field site, to be honest, people were far more concerned about how their parents or their friends might react to what they posted online than they were about say, being monitored or censored by the government. In the English field site, I would say what really made people anxious was surveillance by the social media companies. In fact, they saw targeted advertising as the evidence that these companies already knew everything about their private life.

Skip to 3 minutes and 38 secondsAnd I remember working with some of the hospice patients. They really kind of hated the idea that these adverts kept reminding them of the fact that they had cancer. Given the political situation in my Turkish site, people are anxious about the surveillance of the state, but at the same time, people-- and especially women-- are concerned about the surveillance of friends and family members. Well, that sounds quite similar to the story which I told before about how a factory girl, Huang Ling, was using different social media platforms to communicate with her ex-boyfriend indirectly, while avoiding the surveillance of her big family.

Skip to 4 minutes and 15 secondsOK, well I think this really shows us how when we're looking at privacy, just like we saw previously in the case of business and education, that adding in the case of China really forces us to think very anthropologically. Now, we may have our own local ideas about what privacy is, but actually, when we step out of this local bubble and we consider the much broader worldview, things become much more complicated. And the case of social media has really made that much clearer.

Keeping secrets: social media and privacy

In this video we explore some of the very different historical experiences of privacy between our fieldsites and see how this has affected the impact of social media on privacy today.

Do you share your social media passwords with anyone? How much does this reflect your attitudes to privacy or could this be related to quite different concerns? How should we define privacy to take into account cultural differences?

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Why We Post: the Anthropology of Social Media

UCL (University College London)

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