The Lost Value of Privacy

Why the Phrase “Think Before You Click” Should be Taken More Seriously


Video-sharing and social networking sites such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are so widely used that they are becoming hallmarks of today’s world. Millions of people across various age groups and economic classes are logging on to these sites, posting home-made videos and personal information like birthdays, email addresses and photos; as a result, sharing our personal information to virtually anyone with access to the Internet has become as ordinary as owning an email account. Yet now that we are opening the door to our personal lives more than ever before, we need to ask ourselves: in this seemingly harmless spreading of personal information, where do we draw the line to keep from endangering ourselves and those around us? What is happening to our respect for privacy?

These are difficult questions to answer, for we, as young adults in the 21st century, have been raised in an environment in which publicly displaying personal information has become not only commonplace, but also glamorized. Videotaping people 24/7 is no longer viewed as surveillance but as reality television. Furthermore, as new media increasingly becomes personalized with gadgets like digital cameras, smartphones and personal laptops, we are enchanted by the possibility of becoming pop icons, using new media technology, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook in the hopes of gaining celebrity, acceptance, self-expression and validation. Rather than looking at our use of YouTube videos and social networking accounts as tools strangers can use to watch us from afar, we treat them as opportunities to be in the spotlight.

Despite the innovation in sharing videos and connecting with people through the web, we’ve seen conflicts arise from this dispersal of private information in many occasions. The most recent example of this is the Tyler Clementi case. Clementi was a first-year student at Rutgers who committed suicide on Sept. 22 after a video of him having a sexual encounter in his dorm room with another male student was allegedly broadcast on the Internet by his roommate, Dharun Ravi, and another classmate, Molly Wei, without Clementi’s knowledge.

Naturally, after the tragic account of a young man who lost his life only weeks into his college career was publicized, many accused Ravi and Wei of being homophobic. When I first heard the story, their reported criminal acts didn’t strike me as anti-homosexual. I was struck by their audacity to intrude on another person’s intimate encounter by watching Clementi and his partner through a hidden webcam and then share it through the Internet with countless other strangers. Ravi and Wei’s charges of invasion of privacy will never cure the pain that Clementi’s family and friends are suffering, but if there is something that people can take away from this case, it should be the realization that there are serious consequences to acting outof a blatant disregard for another person’s privacy.

Clementi’s story clearly goes to show the hidden danger of displaying too much information on sites like YouTube and Facebook, because if taken too far, we can over-expose ourselves and others. In all of this sharing, we are becoming desensitized to once strongly held values like discretion and intimacy. As college students that use these online social networking portals on a day-to-day basis, it is important to keep these values in mind. After all, you never know when a compromising picture you were tagged in on Facebook could cost you a job position. Nor do you know when a compromising picture you tagged of your friend could guide them to the same fate, or, even worse, lead them to lose trust in you. It is undeniable that there are many assets that come along with our access to the Internet and sites like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. But that does not mean we can forget the principles of protecting ourselves and respecting others when we use them.