Whenever we install a new app or start using a new service, there is a feeling of guilt when we click 'agree' without having fully read or understood the terms and conditions.
That same feeling prompted Manoush Zomorodi, host of WNYC's Note to Self, a weekly podcast discussing the impact of technology on people's daily lives, to reach out to her community of listeners and find out what their thoughts were on data, personal information and privacy.
The project, called The Privacy Paradox, kicked off on 30 January with a podcast and a privacy quiz designed to help participants figure out if they were believers, realists or shruggers when it came to their rights to digital privacy and how much information they were giving away online.
"[People] felt like they didn't have the knowledge about what was happening to their personal information, they didn't really know what the trade-offs were and they didn't know how to use technology in a way that it aligned with their values," Zomorodi told Journalism.co.uk in a recent podcast.
"You hear people say 'oh, make sure you have a very strong password or make sure you use two-step verification'. But what they really seemed to want to know was more the interdisciplinary aspect of why privacy matters, why it is considered something we have a right to and why those rights have not been extended into a place where we live most of the time, which is online."
What followed was a series of five podcast episodes and challenges, which ran from 6 to 10 February. Each day, listeners who had signed up to the project received a newsletter containing the day's episode, in which Zomorodi and one or two guests would tackle a specific aspect of privacy, including the psychological aspects of privacy and the Right to be Forgotten.
For example on the first day, Zomorodi discussed the differences between data and metadata with security technologist and cryptographer Bruce Schneier, and in the last episode, she was joined on the podcast by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
The newsletters also contained daily challenges and actions participants were meant to take in response to what was being discussed in the podcasts.
"We asked people to dig into the settings [on their phones] and look for things like 'why does that flashlight app need access to your contacts'? Actually, it doesn't – take back a little bit of your metadata."
On the last day of the project, participants were asked to write their personal terms of service by "filling in the blanks to help them figure out what role privacy has in their life and how they can apply that meaning to make choices they actually feel good about online".
There was also an option for listeners to download the encrypted text messaging app Signal and text directly with Zomorodi and the Note to Self staff, which "hundreds of people" did on the first day of the experiment, and to whom the team had to reply manually and individually.
The Privacy Paradox week of challenges ended on 10 February and the project concluded on 15 February with a final episode detailing some of the feedback listeners had provided in their messages and in a survey, and how their views on digital privacy had changed.
"Tens of thousands" of people took part in the project, and while before the experiment, only 37 per cent strongly agreed that data will need to be regulated in the future, the number increased to 64 per cent following The Privacy Paradox. Some 87 per cent of participants said the project had helped them see privacy invasions they didn't know existed, and 70 per cent said they were now going to "push for protection of our digital rights", as Zomorodi pointed out in the episode.
The Privacy Paradox is Note to Self's third experiment in audience engagement and crowdsourcing stories from listeners, and Zomorodi said she believes that this type of projects have become a "development of what the show is".
"We have to make sure, even if we are doing a quite serious subject, that we bring to it our sense of fun, our sense of community and our sense of goofiness. Whether we're talking about boredom or how we manage our information or digital privacy, we need to reach people in a way that they feel understood, welcomed and they feel like it's a safe place to experiment and share their own stories.
"I think people really enjoy telling us their stories and knowing that they will be able to hear other listeners' stories as well, that's a key part of this.
"There's also a real power to making it on demand, people knowing they could do this project at any time," she said, adding that for the duration of the project, participants knew there were "thousands of other people also waking up and trying something at the same time".
Note to Self's previous two projects, Bored and Brilliant and Infomagical, were both week-long experiments that listeners took part in to track how much time they spent on their phones, and how to cope with information overload.
While texting was the primary method of communication between the Note to Self team and listeners who participated in Infomagical, using newsletters seemed like a more suitable choice for The Privacy Paradox.
"We have found that, for us, the newsletter is really the perfect vehicle for talking to our audience and sharing with them.
"Texting was fun and very effective, but in terms of being able to get a little deeper, there were limitations, so we decided to measure via the newsletter this time, which people can directly respond to.
"I love that we've reached this mix of on demand and community action at the same time, so I'd say that people telling their own stories, giving us their feedback and also knowing they're part of this community is really important," Zomorodi said.
Free daily newsletter
- How simple storytelling techniques can make you a better writer
- How to take your audience engagement up a notch in a pandemic: #NISAudience takeaways
- The Membership Puzzle Project launches a guide to building a sustainable business model for your newsroom
- Tip: A beginner’s guide to creating a successful newsletter
- 'Personal approach and honesty' are the secret to membership success during the coronavirus pandemic