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Community, meet Privacy.

Community managers, we need to have a collective conversation about privacy.

When was the last time you actually read a privacy policy? Most folks click through privacy and security policies, or get annoyed by them.

Privacy is and should be an important, accessible, transparent journey the community member wants to go through. There is an opportunity to engage people on a social and cultural level, rather than simply just a legal and compliance one.

Online communities allow us to interact in nuanced and creative ways and are strongly linked to our physical and emotional identity. Our online behaviors represent an authentic and curated impression of who we are. Therefore, designing privacy in community experiences protects your members digital selves.

As as community manager, have you thought about how you guard the data in your community? Communities may become more regulated in the future, so get ahead of the curve now and start to build privacy into your community from the ground up and have it inform your decision making and what you ask from the community.

When we ask people to sign up and engage in our communities, we are asking for pieces of them. Personal data and attributes that should be handled, managed and understood with the utmost care.

A community that respects the users privacy is a community that is committed to helping users get the most out of their digital and community lives, while minimizing harm and risk to them.

We need to design communities to be privacy-first. Our communities are designed to draw as much participation and information out as possible from our members — for “engagement”. Is this ethical? To design our communities, programs and rewards to entice our users to constantly remained engaged, plugged in and draw out information?

“Guarantees of privacy must be established in any stable social system.” (Schwartz 2968:742)

The freedom to create an identity in an online community is the essence of privacy; in that members have the ability to develop and curate a digital portrait that reflects their personal preferences .While all of this sharing may help communities, it can destroy privacy.

Too much public information can and will present obstacles when circumstances change or with bad actors. People will be more willing to really connect, increase knowledge and understanding if they are safe. Communities should harness privacy to build a culture of contribution built on genuine commitment to human values.

Community value comes from the group members coming together and creating connections and dependencies with one another. Togetherness and sense of belonging is important for the community as well as the individuals identity and unity in relation with each other. Relationships in your community rely on mutual knowledge of each other and an exchange of information. To do so, it is necessary that they reveal parts of themselves.

Limiting contact and information from others is as important in the functioning of group relationships. Community requires privacy to control the information they release to create these ties and relationships. The trust and formation of these relationships is built on discretion, concealment and withholding and the openness of coming together — all of which are shaped by privacy. Mutual understanding and respect of privacy allows social communities to function in a healthy way and establish healthy boundaries.

“Privacy is often important, but there can be too much as well as too little privacy; subordinating as well as equalizing forms of privacy; fairly distributed, as well as unfairly distributed privacy; privacy for good, as well as privacy used for evil.” (Allen 2000:1200)

Privacy can be expensive and difficult to obtain and manage, it can be a luxury. Privacy is not distributed equally and can influence systems of inequality and power. Privacy, or lack thereof, can effect power balance. Data is knowledge and power. When we give this power back to the members themselves, we empower them. If community managers hold most of the data and power, what does that say to the community? The inability to control or manage privacy represents a lack of power. The community should be empowered to fully own and define themselves and manage their information and data.

Public engagement in a community depends on distinct boundaries and private autonomy exist. Think of an office design — are you designing your community to support open-plan and private rooms? Meaning, are you allowing folks to pick between how they spend their time in more visible or private spaces in your community?

Not having privacy in a community can breed animosity, exhaust engagement and energy and effect the sense of belonging. Privacy is a socially created need and for the social good.

“A well-secured private autonomy helps ‘secure the conditions’ of a public autonomy.” (Habermas 1998:408)

What community managers do with their communities data matters today; it will matter tomorrow and it will matter next year. Data can be a community super power to allow you to make the right decisions, and be informed — the gift of information. Caring about the privacy around your members and their data brings integrity into your community.

People can be harmed by their data being misused. Data harms are real, and they can affect communities in profoundly damaging and long-lasting ways: we all need to face this reality and take action to protect each other.

We need to shift the conversation around data protection and privacy from policy and compliance and focus more on people. Ultimately, building the foundation of your community on privacy allows your members the freedom and trust to digitally express themselves and actively participate.

Privacy protections are integral in cultivating your digital self. Communities are not intrinsically valuable. Its value lies within the adoption and engagement of its members.
Designing with privacy-first principles empowers your members equally to control their digital experience and destiny.

I hope to develop some tactical recommendations for communities to help community managers help usher in a new era of privacy policies and experiences. What would you like to see? What did you think if this article? Please leave comments below!

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