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Sunday, September 28 • 11:21 - 11:40
"Beyond Distributive and Communicative: Sharing is Context-Specific"

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Background: Sharing is a concept which is under-theorized and under-conceptualized in the social media era. Traditional conceptualizations of the term posit it as both a form of distribution and as an expression of communion (John, 2013a), however Van Dijk (2010)  offers sharing as a counterposition to privacy. Instead of a dialectical tension between public and private (Altman, 1975; Jurgenson & Rey, 2012; Petronio, 2002), or a continuum of closedness and openness (Ford, 2011), a focus on sharing acknowledges that it enables agency in the regulation of privacy, and also that it offers indirect benefits such as social capital formation. Both privacy and sharing can be empowering (Allen, 1988), but the specter of digital surveillance threatens individual agency over personal data. We suggest that the ways in which individuals discuss the concept of sharing personal information online offers insight into how sharing might be conceptualized today. Reader comments to online newspaper accounts offer a digital space for public deliberation and share characteristics of the social and analytical processes associated with public discourse (Manosevitch & Walker, 2009). Readers who comment on these stories may exhibit agency in resisting public agendas as set by mainstream media (Papacharissi, 2009) and may direct us toward an initial understanding of how readers conceptualize sharing, its norms, and its other unique dimensions.

Objective:  This study seeks to move beyond the binary of public and private, and towards developing a conceptual framework for sharing as a counterposition to privacy. We explore the conceptual dimensions of sharing in the public discussion surrounding news stories and blog posts on sharing personal data online to begin a discussion on how this idea situates to understandings of privacy today.

Methods: Using semantic network analysis, this study examines reader comments on 128 news stories and blog posts related to sharing personal information were published in the New York Times in 2013, a total of approximately 13,200 reader comments. Data was cleaned and refined using Automap, and imported into NodeXL for cluster analysis.

Results: The data revealed six dimensional clusters, which extend the conceptualization of sharing beyond its traditional roots of communality and distribution; these clusters include commercial and surveillance components. Notably, this demonstrates that in the discussion related to the sharing of personal information, commenters acknowledge the potential for commodification and monitoring, further suggesting that sharing, as it relates to personal information, may ultimately be understood as a form of objectification.

Conclusions: Our findings extend the understanding of the concept of sharing beyond its distributed or communicative roots, and seeming conflation of these dimensions by social media platform providers (John, 2013b). Personal information is “a fuzzy object of sharing” (John, 2013b), yet when given context, the sharing of personal information takes on tangible dimensions of commodification and objectification. We argue then, that sharing is contextual, much like privacy, as there are multiple and simultaneous understandings of the term depending on its application.  Thus, we must recognize that “privacy” is not the only concept, nor the most salient, that matters in the discussion of privacy as it evolves in the social media environment.


Allen, A. (1988). Uneasy access:  Privacy for women in a free society. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield.

Altman, I. (1975). The environment and social behavior:  Privacy, personal space, territory, crowding. Monterey, CA:  Brooks/Cole Publishing.

Ford, S. M. (2011). Reconceptualizing the public/private distinction in the age of information technology. Information, Communication & Society, 14(4), 550-567.

John, N. A. (2013a). The Social Logics of Sharing. The Communication Review, 16(3), 113–131. doi:10.1080/10714421.2013.807119

John, N. A. (2013b). Sharing and web 2.0: The emergence of a keyword. New Media & Society, 15, 167-182. doi:10.1177/1461444812450684

Jurgenson, N. & Rey, P. J. (2012). Comment on Sarah Ford’s ‘Reconceptualization of privacy and publicity.’ Information, Communication & Society, 15(2), 287-293.

Manosevitch, E. & Walker, D. (2009). Reader comments to online opinion journalism: A space of public deliberation. Paper presented to the 10th International Symposium on Online Journalism, Austin, TX, April 17-18.

Papacharissi, Z. (2009). The virtual sphere 2.0: The internet, the public sphere, and beyond. In A. Chadwick & P. N. Howard (Eds.) Routledge Handbook of Internet Politics (230-245). New York, NY: Routledge. Petronio, S. (2002). Boundaries of privacy:  Dialectics of disclosure. Albany, NY:  State University of New York Press.

van Dijck, J. (2010). The culture of connectivity. Oxford, UK:  Oxford University Press.

avatar for Renee M. Powers

Renee M. Powers

University of Illinois at Chicago
PhD student in Communication // research interests include gender, privacy, and online communities // non-research interests include craft beer, cats, and makeup

Sunday September 28, 2014 11:21 - 11:40
TRS 1-003 Ted Rogers School of Management

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