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.


Please Rob Me: what’s the big panic, exactly?

Paul Raven @ 18-02-2010

Unless you’ve been sleeping under that hypothetical internet-proof rock for the last 24 hours, you’ve probably caught wind of the charmingly-named Please Rob Me, a site that aggregates publicly-available Twitter updates which announce that their creator has left their home empty while they go somewhere else. The theory here is that, by announcing you’re not at home, you’re openly inviting some nefarious evil-doer to burgle all your stuff in your absence; what a terrible indictment of geolocational status updates and public announcements of your daily comings and goings, AMIRITE?

Well, frankly, no. Even someone as poorly versed in crime literature (be it fictional or factual) as myself is aware that an experienced and/or smart burglar tends to “case the joint” carefully before doing the job. And while Please Rob Me might make it possible to know when someone’s out of the house without surveilling it from across the street, that’s its only advantage… assuming that said burglar is willing to take an internet status update as a surety, which – were I a burglar – I certainly wouldn’t do.

So, yes – Please Rob Me may be a useful way of highlighting the fact that many people who geolocate themselves publicly on the web haven’t thought about the implications of that information being publicly available (which is what its creators meant it to do, if I’ve understood their “why” page properly), but it isn’t a sign that there’ll be a sudden swarm of Twitter-combing burglary crews hitting the luxury pads of Silicon Valley high-flyers while they’re slurping up lattes downtown.

If your house is worth robbing, and if it’s being targetted by the sort of burglar who doesn’t just operate on the basis of pure opportunism, then that burglar will find a way of knowing when you’re out of the house, whether that be through watching your Twitter stream or the more old-school (not to mention tried, tested and reliable) method of keeping an eye on the place for a week or so and learning your daily routine. Public geolocation might make that easier to do at a distance, but when their freedom is at stake, I expect the more cautious burglars – the ones who are likely to get away with burgling rich people’s houses at least once, in other words – aren’t going to rely on 140 characters and a GPS tag before crowbarring your back door.

Privacy and lifelogging are important issues, but the alarmist tabloid-esque flapping over Please Rob Me is actually obscuring the important parts of those issues, not bringing them to the forefront. So let’s think things through before hitting the big red button marked ‘technophobia’, shall we?