Foursquare, Chatroulette and the social panopticon

Paul Raven @ 24-02-2010

I think what surprised me most about the Please Rob Me flap was how little flapping there was, and that most of what there was came from the sort of people I usually expect to see beyond the obvious tabloid angles to the truth of a technology story. Perhaps technopanics just aren’t getting the click-through they used to… or maybe everyone’s too busy covering the adventures of neoprene-clad sportsmen in cold places to care.

Stowe Boyd managed to make the point about Please Rob Me in a much more coherent and conciliatory fashion than I did:

I am suggesting that a single level of ‘friending’ is probably too general to satisfy assumed needs for safety, although there is little evidence that social tools increase the likelihood of burglaries or rape. We don’t have an epidemic of ‘social crime’ to resolve here.

The slippage of geolocational information from a closed, stable network into an open, dynamic one opens up a wider assemblage of contacts, but without the assumed friendship that comes from symmetric following. […]

So, I think the slippage of geolocational information from a closed, stable system like Foursquare into an open, dynamic system like Twitter is less problematic than generally considered. I don’t think it, per se, is scary.

While it is possible that a cadre of burglars or a sex slave ring might try to eavesdrop on our geolocational information in these services, history would suggest that our so-called friends and acquaintances are actually the source of most of these dangers.

People are scary, not social tools.

Quite – and that’s not to underemphasise the potential scariness of people, either. The perspective we need to regain here is that technologies aren’t intrinsically creepy, invasive and risky, but that some people are. If anything, gaining a true understanding of the implications of a technology is probably a better way to minimise its risks than a witch-hunt. Kids can cut themselves with sharp knives – so do we ban all knives, or do we just teach kids not to play with them?

I’m not saying that encroachment into privacy isn’t a problem – just ask the kids of Harriton High School. But we need to move away from this culture of blaming technology for the misuses it is (or could be) put to by people; it’s the same fallacy that the hair-shirt greens are so fond of, and it’s counterproductive on every level. Sure, we’re all able to watch each other more thoroughly than ever before, and yes, the social panopticon comes with similar social risks to a more monolithic (e.g. governmental) surveillance apparatus [via @AmandaChapel]- but it’s not going to go away. Wringing your hands is a waste of time; if you really want to prevent tech misuses, educate your audience instead of trying to terrify them into momentary Luddism.

Talking of technophobia, I name ChatRoulette as front-running candidate for the next tabloid technoterror. The more moderate mainstream media has a hold of the story already, painting it in very “wow, the crazy things these internet people build!” colours with some positivist highlights:

… Chatroulette is a social Web site that allows you to navigate somewhat incognito. “There’s no log in, there’s no registration, and that’s fundamentally different from Facebook and Twitter, where your real persona is tied back to you,” said Sarita Yardi, a doctoral candidate at the Georgia Institute of Technology who studies the role of technology in teenagers’ lives.

The Web has long allowed anonymous conversations among strangers. Text-based chat rooms are rife with deceit — people pretending they are someone else. Video makes this harder — even if you’re wearing a mask. Then, too, the anonymity can be fleeting. Screenshots of people using Chatroulette have popped up everywhere. Is one of them you?

In truth, ChatRoulette looks to be a pretty benign (and ultimately banal) thing – not to mention strangely reminiscent of a Jeff Noon story I vaguely remember, in which every one in the world had a mirror that showed the face of another person somewhere else in the world. The usual social media/privacy commentators are being quietly sensible, too, albeit keeping their guard up against the inevitable accusations of showing support for technodepravity:

I like the fact that there are still a small percentage of folks out there looking for some amusement because they’re bored and they want to connect with randomness, folks who recognize the joy of meeting strangers in a safer space than most physical spaces where that’s possible. I realize that this creates the potential for seeing some pretty gross and/or problematic things and I certainly don’t want to dismiss that, but I’m pretty certain that teens are responding the same way that I’m responding – by clicking Next. Is that ideal? Probably not. And I’d certainly love a filter – not just for teens but for my own eyes.

[…]

I’m not sure that immature folks of any age (or the easily grossed out) should be on this site. But I do hope that we can create a space where teens and young adults and the rest of us can actually interact with randomness again. There’s a cost to our social isolation and I fear that we’re going to be paying it for generations to come.

Indeed; the more we seek to protect ourselves and our children (especially the children, poor innocent things that they are!) from everything and anything, the less able to deal with adversity we become – and adversity is inevitable, unless you live in a box lined with cotton wool and a Faraday cage. Common sense aside, however, the potent and flammable combination of children, strangers and video pretty much ensures that ChatRoulette will be moral-panic-boogie-man of the week for the usual suspects within the next month or so… provided the fad lasts that long, of course.

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3 Responses to “Foursquare, Chatroulette and the social panopticon”

  1. Dave says:

    I guess I didn’t see the pleaserobme thing as even serious – the website that is. I just thought it a pretty good joke. I guess I’m surprised at how serious it all became… but then I am less and less surprised at anything these days.

  2. Rick York says:

    Paul,

    I’m 65. So, I think you can imagine my reaction to many of the privacy issues that have risen during the internet age. I believe that my generation’s very definition of privacy is being overturned today. The unfortunate willingness of so many people to expose their private lives has run wild.

    Not all of this is a direct consequence of the net. You may not remember but, much of the life-exposure goes back to the earliest days of those talk shows like Jerry Springer’s in which people went on camera to describe and discuss the most intimate aspects of their personal lives. This, of course, led to the plague of “reality tv” which is no more real than the tooth fairy. We have paraded before us many of the worst aspects of human nature. To a large extent, the “reality” shows glorify these behaviors.

    It should come as no surprise then that the early generation(s) of the internet age would be inclined to bare the most intimate secrets of their lives, from sexting to nude pictures. Unfortunately for them, anything placed on the web stays there forever. Some of the younger generation are running into the consequences of such behavior.

    What we really need is a whole lot of “Please Rob Me” pranks to finally get all these folks who are making their lives public to understand the consequences of what they’re doing.

  3. anonymous says:

    It’s funny how Omegle is a spin-off of anicechat.net and Chatroulette a spin-off of Omegle! I think anicechat.net deserves some respect, as it was the first. Create a facebook group and spread the truth, anyone?