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Lectio Precursoria: Interpersonal Boundary Regulation in the Context of Social Network Services

January 8, 2014

Interpersonal boundary regulation constitutes of the efforts needed to make the world work, that is, for people to achieve contextually desirable degrees of social interaction and to build and sustain their relations with others and with the self. In my dissertation, I examined the topic in the context of social network services. 

I defended the work last week at University of Helsinki, with Assistant Professor Lorraine Kisselburgh from Purdue University as my opponent. Below, you can find an adapted version of the talk, lectio precursoria, that I gave as a part of the public examination. If you are curious to take a look at the dissertation itself, a digital version is freely available online.

Madam Opponent, Madam Custos, Ladies and Gentlemen,

In the last decade, social network services have grown to play important roles in the everyday life of millions of people. While this new year is only about to begin, chances are many of you have already visited a social network service, such as Facebook, during its first days. Most likely even earlier today. And, to be honest, I would not be surprised if some of you accessed one during this talk, too.

For many of you in this audience, social network services have become a pervasive part of social life. In that sense, you resemble the young adults who participated in the studies upon which I draw in this talk. Next to Facebook, the studies considered the use of the music-centric service, the local online exchange service Kassi that is nowadays known as Sharetribe, and to a lesser degree the professionally oriented LinkedIn. Furthermore, the final study considered information technology students’ preference for Internet Relay Chat - a technology choice that counters the hype around social network services.

Ubiquitous access to social network services and participation in social interaction via them is of course not universal. Today, however, I will focus on how those who have an opportunity to engage with social network services use them as a part of their daily life.

It is noteworthy that when it comes to young adults residing in contemporary Finland, typically also those who opt out of using social network services have – and indeed must have – an opinion on them. Furthermore, refusing to join a social network service does not mean that one would not be referred to in the service in question. For instance, others may share photos or publish anecdotes that concern those who refuse to participate.

In popular media and academic texts, writers both celebrate and lament the way that people share online. In its negative valence, ‘sharing’ is often characterized as narcissistic or equated with loss of privacy. With the Snowden leaks and the continuously increasing number of people adopting networked technologies for socializing, 2013 was a year that brought concerns over networked privacy to the mainstream. Horror stories abound of sharing leading to lost job opportunities or relationship difficulties. At the same time, social network services remain wildly popular, and it seems that the use of these technologies can help people to build, maintain, and benefit from social relationships (Jung et al., 2013).

Instead of weighing the harms and benefits of engaging with social network services, I focus on the everyday practices young adults apply to regulate interpersonal boundaries, that is, to achieve contextually desirable degrees of social interaction and to build and sustain their relations with others and with the self.

Before we go deeper into these practices, let’s consider in more detail what social network services are.

Stern (2008, p. 98) has depicted them as a ‘next generation of personal home pages’ that both allow for self-expression and provide opportunities for social interaction with other users. Ellison and boyd (2013, p. 158) characterise a social network site as ‘a networked communication platform in which participants (1) have uniquely identifiable profiles that consist of user-supplied content, content provided by other users, and/or system-provided data; (2) can publicly articulate connections that can be viewed and traversed by others; and (3) can consume, produce, and/or interact with streams of user-generated content provided by their connections on the site’.

In choosing to address this category of systems as social network services instead of as sites, I highlight their ubiquitous nature: While many social network services started off as, and are primarily, Web sites, they are nowadays accessed through many devices and platforms, such as separate applications on mobile devices. Moreover, people do not interact with social network services solely when they are on the site of the service itself. Rather, they may come across features integrated with them almost anywhere on the Web. For instance, Facebook’s ‘Like’ feature, which allows people to indicate with a single click their approval and enjoyment of pieces of online content, is now nearly ubiquitous on the Web.

Furthermore, I address interpersonal boundary regulation in the context of social network services instead of discussing it simply in social network services. I make this distinction not in order to confuse you, or to make things sound more complicated than they need to be, but to highlight that one does not need to be interacting directly with a social network service to feel the need to take these services into consideration. The widespread bringing of social network services into everyday use affects sociality more broadly than solely in terms of the activities that take place on these platforms.

In my research, I combine Irwin Atlman’s (1975) framework of privacy as boundary regulation with Erving Goffman’s notions of self-presentation and Schwalbe and Mason-Schrock’s (1996) more recent theorizing on identity work. I do so in order to examine how social interaction and relationships are managed in the context of social network services.

Interpersonal boundary regulation is by no means a specialty of social interaction in this context. It is a core process of social life: Interpersonal boundaries are constantly regulated through negotiations that draw lines of division between self and others, and ‘us’ versus ‘them’. They are used to structure how and with whom people interact.

As individuals, groups, and societies, people regulate access to social interaction both by how physical spaces are built and decorated and through the behaviors and discussions that take place in them. Practices of such regulation abound from making or avoiding eye contact to closing or opening a door.

With the introduction of social network services, some of the old practices may no longer be applicable or effective. For instance, when it comes to social interaction via these services, it is not reasonable to rely solely on the supportive structures that time and space can provide.

Let me give you an example.

In face-to-face settings, those doing and saying things typically have a fairly good sense of who can see and hear their actions. Although someone could, of course, be eavesdropping out of sight, having such an unintended audience would be exceptional and a violation of commonly held rules of decorum.

In the context of social network services, these spatial and temporal boundaries become obscured. Moreover, digital content persists over time. Thus, it gets harder to decipher whom one may be interacting with and what interactions may occur asynchronously at some point in the future (Tufekci, 2008).

From the perspective of interpersonal boundary regulation, it is not sufficient to consider solely the challenges that are related to undesirably high levels of exposure. In Altman’s terms (1975), interpersonal boundary regulation has failed also when individuals end up with less interaction and fewer connections to others than they desired.

Conversations on privacy and social network services, however, tend to depict ‘too much’ access more readily as an issue than ‘too little’ access. This tendency risks casting engagement with social network services in a problem-oriented light. It misses the delicate balancing acts that people perform to achieve contextually desirable degrees of access to social interaction. Emphasizing the withdrawal aspects can lead to overlooking motivations for participation and the benefits people may gain from it.

While the framework of boundary regulation originates in considerations of social life in physical settings, these factors are often bypassed in examination of boundary regulation in the context of social network services.

So far, the tendency in research into social network services has been to examine these actions in isolation from offline activities. Yet, the social interaction that takes place in social network services is embedded in a wider fabric of social relationships.

Interpersonal interaction online is not a novelty. Yet, the recent widespread adoption of social network services challenges customary mechanisms of regulating interpersonal boundaries. At the same time, social network services present people with novel opportunities to maintain social ties; craft an online presence; and, as a result, gain access to social validation and meaningful feedback (Stern, 2008). The dialectic of novel challenges and opportunities gives rise to the question of how to make sense of social life and how to regulate interpersonal boundaries in these networked circumstances.

In my research, I examined how people who engage with social network services make sense of interpersonal boundaries in the networked context and what kinds of practices they apply for regulating them. My research is aimed at considering these efforts in terms of both how individuals co-operate with one another and how their interpersonal boundary regulation efforts are shaped by the affordances of the technologies with which they engage.

More specifically, I approached boundary regulation practices in detail through four themes: 1) sharing with multiple groups, 2) sharing on behalf of others, 3) sharing via automation, and 4) sharing online and offline. The themes are framed around the emic notion of ‘sharing’ that is central to how people talk about activities taking place in social network services.

The aim of my research was to better understand how people regulate interpersonal boundaries

  1. in a setting wherein multiple groups important to them are simultaneously present, forming a diverse audience for the content that they share
  2. in a setting wherein it is technically easy to share content on behalf of others
  3. in a setting that encourages people to share behavioral information via an automated sharing mechanism
  4. in settings wherein sharing online and offline are connected in diverse ways.

I addressed these questions with five explorative studies that feature qualitative interviews as their primary research material.

These studies capture aspects of how young adults in Finland are navigating the transition to an ever more networked world. The participants in all studies were active, somewhat experienced users of respective case technologies.

The studies provide a qualitative, interpretative analysis of ongoing sense-making surrounding social life in the context of social network services. They uncover accounts of how the participants react to the four distinct aspects of sharing and how they regulate interpersonal boundaries as they face various challenges related to these aspects.

At the time of the studies, there were no readily available models to rely on in building an understanding of how interpersonal boundaries are regulated in this emergent context. The exploratory nature of my research questions directed me to adopt a qualitative research approach that allowed for building a grounded understanding of the topic.

The studies relied on both in-depth one-on-one interviews and focus groups. The semi-structured interview protocols allowed for conducting the interviews in a flexible manner. In some cases, interview materials were complemented with online observation or participant observation, and with involvement in the design process in the case of the local online exchange service Kassi.

The analysis processes applied after the gathering of research material were characterized by the use of a grounded approach that leveraged existing theoretical concepts when this was possible.

Based on this research, I argue that while widespread adoption of social network services disrupts central conventional premises of interpersonal boundary regulation, interpersonal boundary regulation is best understood as a co-operative process also in our networked age. In fact, social network services may even amplify the importance of co-operative boundary regulation and increase awareness of the necessary efforts. It can be harder to decipher and define the situation in which an interaction takes place, especially as the shared content persists beyond the ephemeral moment of sharing.

The findings highlight the importance that users of social network services place on mutual consideration when boundary regulation is involved.

While individuals can regulate interpersonal boundaries on their own, ultimately their success always relies on others’ support of their efforts to draw boundaries in a certain way. Alongside the continuous and subtle acts of contesting or supporting others’ efforts, individuals display more overt co-operation too, as they co-ordinate shared efforts to regulate boundaries. For instance, they may discuss with one another what digital content to share with whom. Next to these efforts, deliberate choices of which services to use may also serve interpersonal boundary regulation.

I propose that interpersonal boundary regulation practices in this context can be depicted along three dimensions: Firstly, practices can be either individual or collaborative. Also, there are preventive and corrective practices. Thirdly, there are both mental and behavioral practices.

Social network service user’s agency to regulate interpersonal boundaries is restricted neither to adjusting the privacy settings provided within a social network service nor to selecting from among the choices services propose to their users in the user interface.

Some practices build directly on the design of social network services. Others largely bypass the technologies, circumventing their limitations by achieving boundary regulation in ways that do not rely on the use of specific services.

According to the findings, people do not necessarily ponder the practices they employ. Practices may even be understood better as behaviors that make people feel comfortable than as active strategies intentionally applied for reaching specific outcomes.

The key issue arising in relation to the theme of sharing with multiple groups, is that people need to find ways to regulate interpersonal boundaries also when they cannot define the interaction situation precisely and when it is not necessarily clear to whom access to interaction is provided, or whether or when these audiences actually interact with the content that is made available.

The findings from the first study demonstrate that while participants reported few social tensions related to group co-presence per se, group co-presence was arguably unproblematic only insofar as it was made unproblematic with the aid of both behavioral and mental practices.

Examination of the second theme, sharing on behalf of others, highlights how interpersonal boundary regulation is best understood to be co-operative on two levels: First, co-operation is manifested in that maintaining a boundary or making a successful claim to identity requires that others affirm one’s actions and support the definition of oneself that is put forward. Second, in response to the need to deal with content disclosed by others and with one’s power to share on behalf of others, co-operation to regulate interpersonal boundaries takes place also via explicit negotiation of what to share, with whom, and under what conditions.

The main finding with respect to the third theme, sharing via automation, is that, although automated sharing mechanisms are supposed to make sharing increasingly effortless, much work can go into regulating what is being shared via such a mechanism. Furthermore, interpersonal boundary regulation in the presence of automated sharing mechanisms entails decisions that extend beyond choices over sharing per se and affect, instead, how participants behave in the first place. Here, an analytical distinction can be made between two types of boundary regulation practices: First, there are interpersonal boundary regulation practices that regulate what is publicized. Second, as a special case of the latter, there are efforts to regulate what to do and, consequently, what kind of data will be available for sharing later on.

Finally, with the fourth theme I addressed various ways in which sharing online and offline are connected. The participants in the five studies considered themselves socially accountable for their self-presentation efforts both online and offline. Interpersonal boundary regulation in the context of social network services is not limited to action that takes place online. Rather, boundary regulation in different situations forms a whole that sustains social relations and self-presentation over time, while specific practices are adapted contextually.

To conclude, I argue that interpersonal boundary regulation takes place through co-operative processes also in the context of social network services, although these services have characteristics that disrupt conventional premises.

Social network services provide individuals with tools to share various types of content with multiple groups, on behalf of others, via automation, and in ways that are connected to social interaction offline. In doing so, they may lead to a situation wherein the performative nature of social life becomes more visible than is desirable. Increased awareness of the work that goes into achieving smooth social interaction and sustaining meaningful relationships may feel uncomfortable because it challenges the smoothness of the performance and the illusion of effortless authenticity.

While participants did not readily discuss interpersonal boundary regulation as explicit co-operation, they did place strong emphasis on being trustworthy and considerate. The co-operative nature of the endeavor is something that was discussed already by early theorists of interpersonal boundary regulation but it often goes unacknowledged in ongoing discussions of privacy in the networked world.

This work counters the dominant narrative of privacy management as an individual-level endeavor that concerns control over information. It advances social scientific understanding of networked privacy by shedding light on people’s everyday practices of interpersonal boundary regulation.

In emphasizing that boundary regulation is a process that affects both allocation and restriction of access to social interaction, the framework assists in striking a balance between dystopian reflections on the death of privacy in a networked world and utopian discourses surrounding the effortlessness and ease of sharing online.

In highlighting the co-operative nature of everyday efforts to ‘make the world work’, I call researchers, service designers and policymakers alike to rethink privacy in our networked age beyond the individual level and across the many online and offline settings in which people come together.

If you made it all the way here, I tip my hat and thank you with a smile. For full references and a more detailed treatment of the subject, please take a look at the digital version of the dissertation.

(c) Juha Mikkonen

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