Social Networking Services and Privacy: An Evolutionary Notion

Social Networking Services and Privacy: An Evolutionary Notion

(The topic will be presented in ICR2017: 3rd Interdisciplinary Cyber Research workshop 8th of July, 2017 — Tallinn, Estonia)

Xingan Li


Unprecedented technological innovation has reshaped the facets of human society in recent decades in a faster rhythm than in a span of centuries in the past. Interconnected information system facilitates social networking services in a broader and deeper scope that traditional transportation, communications and social media alone were incapable of containing. Online activities become the novel artifacts that the society is destined to be recorded. Under such circumstances, privacy, a relatively young notion, acquires yet newer load of sense.

The purpose of the current research is to study new development and new challenge in the notion of privacy. The theoretical starting point of the analysis is the idea of informed formal rationality (Li 2006; Li 2015), as a developed version of rationality theory of Max Weber (Weber 1978). This indicates that there is a process of human decision-making from uninformed rationality to informed rationality, during which present information system assists in uplifting the horizon of the cognitive ability of human beings as a whole and that of stakeholders in particular. The rapid transformation in recent decades from under informed rationality to better informed rationality poses dilemmas within and between technological innovation and legal regulations. On one hand, technology can either enhance distribution or limitation of information flow. On the other hand, law is wrestling with either liberating or restraining such a flow. Among these contradictories, both positive and passive exposure becomes a strong tendency among participants of social networking services. Particularly, social networking services are well integrated with the traditional space of market, where certain attributes of participants are tradable targets, and with the traditional activity of marketing, which these attributes of participants are tradable objects. Therefore, an open-door market and open-minded marketing is expected, but a closed-door storage is also indispensible.

From uninformed to informed human space

McNeil and McNeil (2003) divided human webs into five stages: worldwide web, metropolitan web, Old World Web, cosmopolitan web, and global web. During such transformation, information obtaining and exchange are one of the contributing factors. Prevalent manipulation of information system takes the power to shape almost all aspects of contemporary. This tide greatly challenges conventional legal system and necessitates special attention in identifying potential change of legal systems in cyberspace, and to deal with the correlation between enhancement of decision-making and the informed formal rationality (Li 2008).

Informed formal rationality is one of a series of concepts coined by applying Weber’s two-dimensional coordinate system comprised of “formality” and “rationality” and expands it into a three-dimensional model by distinguishing “informability” and “uninformability” (Initially published in Li 2006 in an edited book. See also Li 2015, a revised version was published as a journal article). Based on this concept, the relationship between internal and external control over cyberspace can be considered.

The perfect informed formal rationality represents formal rationality with the subjects informed. Under this model, the decision-making was operated under the circumstances where clearly-addressed regulations and clearly-observed procedure were applied to similar events in a reliable form. Similarly situated were similarly treated, without external intervention in the decision-making process. In addition, the decision-making process has a higher degree of transparency by ensuring that the subjects are informed about the applicable regulations and procedure. This model could, therefore, be trichotomized as unified criterion, due process, and transparent operation (Li 2006; Li 2015).

In order to achieve the merits of this model, a highly developed information sharing system is required. As a perfect model can only be reached with indefinite approximation, there is expected a developing process from absolutely uninformed rationality, through under informed rationality, to better informed rationality. Today, we can perceive an unparalleled technological advance that is reshaping the facets of human society in a much quicker pace than in duration of past centuries. Social networking services are one of the instruments to improve such an informing function, which helps participants to know and to be known with each other. In other words, participants are willing to reach the depth of others’ inner circles to dig out their data, while other participants are willing to float to the surface of their pools to expose their own. Consequently, there are both pulling force and pushing force for data sharing. Such forces are positive in decision-making of all players in cyberspace, but reduce the efforts for privacy protection, lack of which abusive decision-making can become rampant (Dong and Li 2016).

Technological and legal dilemmas

The aim of most technological inventions in the field of social networking services is to improve connection and exposure of participants, with minimum motives for discouraging such activities. Like at a crossroad, where a same starting point can lead to different destinations at different directions, the same technological achievement can result in both opportunities for and risks to privacy (van Dijk 2009: 121). From the very beginning, motivated and developed connection function on one hand and unmotivated and underdeveloped protection function on the other, bring about much loaf of current loopholes in breeding reasonable awareness and safeguarding legal rights. The cyber atmosphere always means open and laissez-faire, without the misgiving of exploitation by potential perpetrators of abuses. Ethics and law are not always critical terms in the glossary of technosphere.

Social networking services are full of such functions that initial intention is only for information of participants to get connected, exposed, and shared. For example, many applications permit users to search other users, to send messages to other users who can be randomly selected as the recipients, to get people within a geographic distance of several kilometers, to shake the telephone and get connected with others who shake the telephone at the same time, to join a group via an acquaintance and peep all other members. When strangers start communicating with each other, they have to actively make conversation with each other so that they can get known. This is a process during which strangers get in touch and acquire trust. When potential criminals acquire trust from the potential victims, they are able to carry out their criminal activities, fraud being one type. This is a process being more informed, but sometimes misinformed, or even in the victim of rationality. Therefore, such a practice can be destructive to development of decision-making towards the model of informed rationality.

Positive and passive exposure

Liberation of human nature and satisfaction of curiosity can both be considered to explain why participants of social networking services are willing to know and to be known with each other. An open and informed society tolerates a broader range of personal information to be available in information retrieving system and thus accessible to a broad range of users. Right information in right hands can naturally be positive for developing an ideal model of informed rationality for decision-making in many fields and in many senses. An ambiguous boundary between free information and privacy becomes movable back and forth, depending on how a new convention is taking a shape from new consensus among participants as well as among those representatives of public interest. A major concern is, however, participants with malicious motivation can exploit such information to satisfy their own needs, unethical or even illegal, which in turn threaten safety and security of those privacy owners, many of whom become victimized just before they are aware of the abuse.

Changing facets of market and marketing

In many different platforms of social networking services, certain attributes of participants are tradable targets, and these attributes of participants are tradable objects. Therefore, an open-door market and open-minded marketing is expected, but a closed-door storage is also indispensible. Marketing buzz can be one of the examples.

Unlike traditional businesses, business on social networking services is not compulsory to get registered. This missing regulation makes it more convenient and more profitable for ordinary users to do business, while at the same time supervision on such transactions is completely left in lack: tax evasion, lower transaction cost, no quality check, no advertising expenses, and so on. A lethal fault of SNS transaction is that, without official registration, authentic identifications and addresses of SNS merchants are by no means easy to verify. Once there are disputes or frauds, it is almost impossible to maintain “consumer rights” or pursue the perpetrators. Selling fake goods are another way of fraud. SNS merchants can upload authentic pictures, but with fake goods sent to the buyers. Particularly, when transactions are done in SNS function of “comments”, there is no third party payment platform employed and high risks exist for buyers’ money or commodity.


If a process of human decision-making from uninformed rationality to informed rationality can be perceived, current information system is assisting in rapid transformation Technology can either enhance distribution or limitation of information flow, while law is wrestling with either liberating or restraining such a flow. Participants of social networking services have been involved in a tendency positive and passive exposure. Integration of social networking services with the traditional space of market and with the traditional activity of marketing, requiring open-door market and open-minded marketing, as well as closed-door storage. Greater risks of victimization exist during the transformation, in which privacy is threatened.

Keywords: Social networking services; privacy; informed formal rationality; marketing; crime; law and technology; safety and security


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