Private matters – are there any boundaries in the digital age?

Posted in: Business and society, Research, Social media

Organizations increasingly try to regulate our online behaviour both formally and informally. In doing so, they colonize our spheres as private individuals and public citizens. In extreme cases, your employer might even tell you what friends to make on Facebook, which political opinions (not) to express on LinkedIn, or to temper your emotions on Twitter. What does this mean for understanding personal and private boundaries in a digital age? Guest blogger, Dr Michael Etter reflects on this dilemma in relation to new research.

Last week Facebook received record fines for breaching the Data Protection Act after failing to safeguard its users’ information. Coming just one month after the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into effect across the EU to provide Internet users more power over their data, this breach has once again got tongues wagging about the boundaries between public and private data in a digital world.

The seemingly never-ending GDPR emails and boxes-to-tick is also a stark reminder of how we constantly share our personal data with organizations and how we often have no idea how this data will be used. This is an issue which is often shared by firms that are still only just beginning to understand how to turn an abundance of digital data into value. At the moment, many firms simply have the strategy to collect as much data as possible. This has significant implications for user privacy.

Privacy is about boundaries

The new European law is certainly an attempt to strengthen transparency and better safeguard private data. We can now, for example, demand from any organization all the data that they store about us. However, privacy is not only about the use of our data by organizations. Privacy is also about how we create our boundaries with others, how we present ourselves online, and how much we reveal to our peers. Through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, we create unique online representations, where we share information with others and actively manage our boundaries. We are often very conscious about how we interact with family members online, how we present ourselves to work colleagues, and how we engage in political discussions with mere strangers.

While we work hard to navigate our public, private, and professional spheres online, organizations increasingly interfere with such attempts, as well as more formal regulations and policies. One can easily imagine how an organization with 20,000 employees might be worried about a potential leak of information, the sharing of discrediting videos, photos, rumours and so on. In fear of reputational damages, some organizations are even concerned about how you talk with other employees online, what kind of friends you have, or what opinions you express. Only three weeks ago, the Austrian Broadcasting Company (ORF) issued social media policies that advise their employees to resign from political opinions even in their private online spheres.

Boundary regulation by firms

A recent study with my colleagues Cynthia Stohl and Scott Banghart reveals that a majority of companies convolute public, personal, and professional spheres, when regulating online communication and behaviour. Through the analysis of over 100 social media policies from the world’s largest corporations, we examined how corporate control is increasing across multiple life domains in the digital age. An example is the social media policy by United Parcel Service (UPS), issued in 2013, that states that “guidelines apply to your personal and professional social media activities, whether during work-hours or at home. Regardless of your location, you never stop being a UPS employee.”

Our study shows that those companies that blur boundaries and invade employees’ spheres the most, are also more likely to issue constraining regulations regarding relationship building, self-presentation, and speech online. SAP – the European multinational software corporation – for example advises its employees to “simply carry the professionalism norms and standards of any SAP office onto the social computing platforms”. Or US discount website Priceline reminds their employees to “be aware that taking public positions online that are counter to the Company’s interests may cause conflict and can have disciplinary repercussions.” Finally Starbucks argues that “we can work it out. Complaints or concerns about Starbucks are best resolved by speaking directly with someone, rather than distributed on social media.

Evolving boundaries in a digital world

The complex and shifting boundaries in the online sphere are a challenge for individuals and organizations alike. While organizations increasingly try to regulate our boundaries, individuals more and more avoid the (semi-)public sphere of social media platforms and migrate to more private platforms, such as WhatsApp groups. The rise of more hidden and secret places to engage in digital communication will create new issues and probably new attempts for regulation. A ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in 2016 decided that it is legal for employers to read employees’ private messages sent through Whatsapp, Facebook, and other channels, as long as their polices state that no private messages should be sent while at work. Even with the introduction of  GDPR, such monitoring is still possible, when there is full transparency about monitoring activities and legitimate interests on the firms’ side. Yet in the wake of tougher sanctions, as Facebook have experienced to their detriment in recent weeks, the shaping of public and private boundaries by organizations is an increasing matter of public interest.

Michael Etter (@MichaelEtter) is senior lecturer at King’s Business School and visiting professor at Copenhagen Business School. The study “Organizational Boundary Regulation Through Social Media Policies” published in the Journal Management Communication Quarterly was financially supported by the Research Council of Norway (project “Fair Labor in the Digitized Economy”).
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Posted in: Business and society, Research, Social media


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