The Face-Time Continuum
A trio of researchers is turning to reality television and Facebook to understand how young people view—and value—personal disclosure when it comes to their time online.
Mina Tsay, assistant professor of mass communication, has spent two years exploring how perceptions of online privacy differ among college freshmen and sophomores who use Facebook and those who watch reality TV. To some extent, both environments are predicated on the disclosure of personal information, but Tsay’s research indicates that frequent Facebook users do not hold the same opinions about privacy as their less-frequent user counterparts, and opinions also differ from consumers of reality TV.
Together with colleagues James Shanahan, also of the BU College of Communication, and the University of Delaware’s Nancy Signorielli, Tsay has recently finished two waves of data collection from surveys of more than 600 students at the two universities. The researchers asked students for their views on different kinds of online personal disclosure, as well as where to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable levels of divulgence. When questioned about various ways that privacy could be compromised online, reality TV buffs were less concerned about Internet-based privacy intrusions than those who infrequently watch those kinds of programs. Conversely, Facebook users who described their use as “heavy” said they felt more concerned about privacy disclosure than those who don’t spend a lot of time on the social networking site.
“There’s this opposite effect going on,” Tsay says. “We’re wondering if, because privacy may potentially be more commercialized and rewarded in one venue—reality television—maybe disclosure operates there in a much more positive way.”
Now, Tsay and her team want to see if their observations can be connected to theories about how television viewers and other users of media cultivate perceptions of privacy. Theories of cultivation—which suggest a correlation between watching violence on television and perceiving the real world as being more threatening, for instance—might help explain students’ views on online privacy. By better understanding the difference between what leads a student to see privacy as something that can be traded for fame, and what leads to a notion of privacy as something to protect, researchers could develop new ways of defining on- and off-line trends and of talking about media consumption and interaction.
A second project by Tsay, with co-principal investigator Deborah S. Chung of the University of Kentucky and funding from the National Science Foundation, is examining whether audiences perceive Twitter as a source of news by analyzing viewers’ reactions to Twitter-sourcing in newscasts on Fox, MSNBC, and CNN. The goal is to find out whether tweeters are now perceived as credible contributors to broadcast news stories, and what role Twitter could play in changing the way news-sourcing works. “What we are interested in is looking at how different framings of the way Twitter is used in a news story influence how people look at that information,” says Tsay, “whether they deem it as credible or not credible, and whether Twitter is changing the landscape of journalism.”