Google+ discourages oversharing – by “Zachary M”

We’ve all been hearing the …er, buzz… about Google’s new social network, Google+. As someone jaded by the oversharing and overall “bogged down” feeling of Facebook, I jumped on the opportunity to see if Google+ would be any different.  It’s still in its early stages, but I’ve been pleased by the tangible steps that Google has taken against oversharing.

First, the emphasis on “circles” makes you think about who is going to read what you post.  Circles are similar to the optional “list” function on Facebook.  But the operative word here is optional.  You need to go out of your way to customize who sees your statuses on Facebook, clicking the lock icon next to the “share” button, then going to a “Customize” menu.

Sharing options for Facebook posts

Clearly, Facebook doesn’t want you to think about who sees your posts.   For Google+, on the other hand, at the bottom of each post, you see who the post will be sent to (see below).  It’s similar to an email mailing list, except the ensuing discussion looks more like Facebook.  Now let’s think about this in the context of a useless post: “I just had some awesome pancakes for breakfast.”  It’s on my mind, so on Facebook, I’ll just type it in, hit enter, and it’s there.  On Google+, I’ll type it in, then go to select which Circles to share it with.  Because of this, I’m forced to ask, “who would care about this?”  Acquaintances are immediately unchecked.  Family? Nah, they wouldn’t care either.  Classmates? No dice.  How about “Close Friends”?  Come to think of it, why would they care about an above-average breakfast?  No one wants to know this, so I’m not going to end up posting it.  This is a perfect example of the power of defaults – two networks have the same options, but they feel fundamentally different since one integrates choice into the interface, while the other hides a default.

Sharing a post on Google+
Select who you share with.

Second, there is no wall.  This is a big move for Google, considering some form of public personal messaging has been a staple of both MySpace and Facebook, its precursors. There’s a complex psychology and sociology to the Facebook wall, but it just starts feeling weird after a while.  It’s akin to people holding a loud conversation in public – you don’t necessarily want to eavesdrop, but you can’t quite avoid doing it.  On Google+, if you want to direct a message at someone, you have two options.  First, you can make a post that you share only with the intended recipient; the person will get a notification about your post.  This is a bit odd, though, since it only appears in your “stream” along with posts not specifically directed at anyone.  Second, just email the person.  Depending on various privacy settings and whether you are Gmail contacts, Google+ profiles have an email link featured prominently under the profile picture. (Edit: You can control whether this link appears by going to your profile, then clicking “Edit Profile,” then the “Send an Email” icon.  When people click this link, they send you an email without actually seeing your email address.)   Either way, you’re encouraged to keep two-person conversations private.

It might seem surprising that the folks who brought us the Buzz disaster would discourage us from sharing too much, but they’ve clearly focused their network around what people don’t like about Facebook (and perhaps they’re trying to avoid the backlash they got from Buzz). Facebook has become inundated with information you never wanted to know from people you met once and became friends with out of politeness.  Even to many people who are “hooked,” Facebook has become more of a social burden than a welcome way to keep in touch with friends.    It’s hard to predict how Google+ will evolve as it scales up and is modified over time – after all, Facebook was once somewhat similar to the current Google+, but it incrementally eroded privacy to draw users in.  However, Google has an advantage that Facebook didn’t have.  It is already an established web resource with enough useful services independent of its social network to keep itself relevant for a good while. Google can continue to attract users by making Google a one-stop digital resource, leaving an unobtrusive social network intact.

Addendum: I should probably note that the “resharing” function leaves a privacy hole, but resharing itself requires that you think about who would want so see someone else’s post.  Though it amounts to no more than automated copy and paste, this is another example of the power of defaults; hopefully Google will allow users to turn off resharing by default before Google+ becomes open.  In general, the Google+ design allows you to limit the people you give information to, not what they do with it, which is really all you can hope for, anyway (see Hoffa v United States).


The Gavin Project – by “Julie S”

In Ontario v. Quon, Justice Scalia encouraged legislature to consider the difference in privacy expectations between laptops and cellphones and to do so quickly, considering law’s seemingly futile rat race against technology.  That brought us to the question that spurred The Gavin Project: what’s more private – our cellphones, email accounts or Facebook messages, and what particular tidbits and facets of our personality and will seep through each of the media we so depend on?

Who is Gavin? It depends where you look.

According to Google’s search engine, Gavin was born and raised in his hometown Townville where he lived his entire life. His mother is Margaret Project and his father is Richard Project. He has a terrier named Jake. At 18 years old, Gavin was publicly honored in his Townsville newspaper as having graduated first in his class.  In high school, Gavin participated in music, fine arts and political organizations. He hung out with friends at parks or local restaurants and enjoyed nerding out.

But a simple Google search won’t reveal the extent of Gavin’s romantic encounters, his music tastes, grades and questionably legal activity.  Each of Gavin’s technological media that most of society would regard as private – his cell phone, Facebook account, and Gmail account – exposed different aspects of Gavin’s private life. His Gmail said he liked the Decembrists.  His cellphone said he liked Avril Lavigne.

If in order to have privacy protection under our legal system we need to demonstrate a subjective expectation of privacy society is willing to recognize, our polled public showed that society was willing to protect each of these different media, and as such The Gavin Project consensually violated one man’s privacy.  We created dossiers of each of our different Gavins, examining what we could learn about him through each of the media.  Ultimately, each of the media revealed information many would consider personal and private.

Perhaps the more philosophical question should be where is the real Gavin? Is he most himself on Facebook, Gmail, or on his cellphone?  We encourage you to decide for yourself as you read and partake in the gross privacy violation that is The Gavin Project.  We can judge for ourselves which privacy violation is most revealing and disturbing for Gavin and in that way help answer Scalia’s normative question of which technological venues should require the most protection by deciding which venues we, society, are most willing to protect.

Check out and follow @theGavinProject on Twitter for updates.

Jeonghyun Kim – Class of 2011
Julie Shain – Class of 2013
Matthew Everts – Class of 2013
Michael Clemente – Class of 2011
Sebastian Park – Class of 2013
Zachary Maher – Class of 2013

Anonymity Online is Impossible – by “Logan M”

Thomas Pynchon has disappeared. He has not actually disappeared, of course, but very few photos of him have been taken in the past forty years and almost no-one, even his most devout fans, recognize him if and when they see him on the street. Pynchon has achieved an almost unfathomable level of anonymity – and we think he is insane for it.

Thomas Pynchon on the Simpsons

All media require a yielding of some information in order to transmit their data. The spoken work means that the content of our message is no longer private to the individuals involved. We take precautions against eavesdropping if we have reason to do so, but these actions themselves show that we accept this loss of privacy in return for the convenience of the spoken word. Similarly, when we communicate using the medium of the mail (physical, not electronic), we give up the privacy of the recipient of the message. Return addresses are not mandatory, but I challenge anyone to send a letter with no delivery address listed. In sending a letter we reveal to those who handle the mail as well as anyone and everyone near the delivery address that our intended recipient is being contacted. We give up the privacy of who is being contacted in return for the convenience of the postal service.

Logo for PostSecret - A Program Where People Send Letters to Frank Warren

The internet is simply another medium through which data is transmitted. However, because of how the system is designed, one must be connected to a central hub (an ISP) before one can transmit data. This connection, and the fact that the ISP routes all signals coming to and from it, means that the ISP knows everything that you do online (whether or not a specific individual at the provider does). This is the privacy that you give up when you sign onto the internet – you lose the ability to act anonymously.

There are of course programs and systems like TOR, which allow you to make anonymous your internet activities to an extent. However, this is simply another part of the ongoing arms race between ISPs and sites attempting to control information and people attempting to conceal it. When people figured out that whispering made conversations less able to be overheard, other people designed amplification devices. When people developed codes for their ideas, other people cracked those codes. TOR and other similar programs are important in that they further this progression of technology and work to set up a balance between groups of people. What they do not offer is perfection; anyone seeking perfection must avoid the system entirely.

Amish Couple

My girlfriend does not have a Facebook account. She does not use LinkedIn, Blogger, or otherwise put her information online. This does impact her life negatively because she is unable to interact with her friends using this medium, but, for her, the desire to remain private is more important than these benefits. For now, this is an understandable view, and in fact the correct action for someone who wishes to remain anonymous and private. I wonder how long it will be, though, before society moves on to the point where a virtual recluse is viewed in the same light as Thomas Pynchon – someone to be mocked on TV and called out on blogs for being, as I said earlier, insane.

Our future

What are the kids up to these days? – by “Paulina H”

Breaking news! The internet isn’t just for porn! Actually, the internet is full of bullies. That’s right. Cyber bullying is the real issue for kids these days.

When we think about cyber-bullying, we think about the libelous attacks that people post anonymously on websites like AutoAdmit or the now defunct Juicy Campus, where posts are almost entirely uncensored and unmoderated. Short of a court-ordered subpoena, in fact, it’s nearly impossible to convince these website owners’ to remove damaging posts, and even when they do, the attacks still exist in cached files on search engines, leaving an indelible mark on the internet. Really, it’s no wonder that cyber-bullying is so damaging to its victims. So, why do nice, ordinary people make such disparaging, thoughtless comments online?

Well, people can be meaner online (Kashmir Hill). It’s true. It’s the 21st century version of talking trash behind someone’s back instead of saying something to their face, except that in this instance, that person can just Google themselves and find out what you’ve been saying. Oops. From the point of view of trash talking poster, it’s okay, because these were anonymous comments. How could anyone possibly find out who they are? Off the internet, yeah, it might be difficult to trace the origins of a rumor, but the internet’s memory is a lot better than our own.

The issue seems to be one of social credit and personal reputation – offline, when you’re spreading rumors about someone, you’re careful who you talk to, because you don’t want to damage your own “stock” of social credit. Nobody wants to be labeled as a gossipmonger. Online, and anonymously, however, there is no credit to be worried about…or so you think. The reality, however, is that anonymity is in short supply on the internet. Moreover, people are apparently forgetting that defamation is always illegal, on- and offline.

Just because you have a pseudonym on a message board doesn’t mean that you’re actually anonymous, since there is a physical link from your computer to the Internet (ISP Providers, anyone?). If you go through proxies like TOR or VPNs like ItsHidden, then you might be more anonymous, but your internet connection can get slower, and if you’re using something like Anonymizer, the moment the server gets too busy, it will automatically shut down and then you’ll be exposed once more. However, the average internet user really isn’t that aware of how vulnerable they are, and how difficult it is to keep things private.

For example: is there really any privacy on Facebook anymore? Apparently, people still think that’s the case. A couple weeks ago, a few girls at Choate Rosemary Hall created their own “burn book” on a Facebook thread. When we think about cyber-bullying, we think about anonymity, but on Facebook, there really isn’t any anonymity to be had, since your online profile is tied to your personal identity. So, really, a new question arises – how much of your privacy is protected?

If these new “See Friendship” pages (which are incredibly creepy, by the way) are any indication, there is practically no privacy on Facebook whatsoever, even if you are extremely careful about who you friend and what people can see on your page. And yet, incidents like what happened at Choate, or what happened to Filipino actress Krista Ranillo, do occur. They’re rarer than your average cyber-bullying case, because to a certain extent, most Facebook users are aware of the fact that they really don’t have much privacy. Nonetheless, libel on Facebook is a serious issue – if you send someone a private message full of damaging accusations, it’s not really private, since it exists somewhere in Facebook’s massive data archives. Would those girls at Choate have said the same things if the medium hadn’t been a message thread, but a status update? Probably not. However, they thought that that thread would never be seen by anyone it was targeting.

Alas, if only they’d been better educated about their privacy options. In general, perhaps if people were more aware of how easily they and their words can be traced on the internet, the rate of cyber-bullying might be lowered, since social credit would become a factor again, and that’s definitely a huge deterrent. After all, nobody actually wants to be labeled as a gossip, right?

“EVERY WHITE PERSON IS A RECIST?” (or my morning on Youtube) – by “Adam F”

This morning started like any morning. Try to wake up at 9:15, roll over and sleep almost another hour. Stumble out of bed, open my computer, and watch the video for Justin Bieber’s hit song “Baby.”

Sometimes, I even scroll down and read the comments, hoping to find a like-minded soul, someone who is lost between irony and truth, and in between the two has found something of a love for a tween sensation. Instead, I found this:




For a video largely targeted at pre-teen girls (not yet women), there are some pretty vile things said in the comments. Of course, the usernames are pretty much entirely anonymous. Names range from “iTrolledABearOnce” to “12345668587,” but none of them reveal a true identity. There are new posts literally every couple seconds. Does this mean that people spend their lives sitting in front of the Justin Bieber video waiting for the opportunity to write something inflammatory? Yes. Yes it does.

I constantly find myself questioning these people. Does the internet dick theory apply to every person? I have never in my life anyone short of clinically shout such horrible profanities. Does that make the post-er a dick? Does (s)he really mean what (s)he wrote? I would guess not.

Still, think of the children who watch this video (and presumably made its view-count exceed the population of our country) and think of the artist who posts the video. To sounds like a fool for a moment: how does Justin feel? He started his career with youtube videos, so one can expect he still checks his view count and reads the comments. Are comments like “BABY BABY BABY OUUUH IM GAY NOOOOOOOU BABY BABY OUHHHHHH MY DAD WILL BE MINE !!!! SIALALA JUSTIN BIMBER GAY !!!!! HOMO” hurtful to a teenage boy? Probably. If not, he has an ego of steel.

All of this is to illustrate another instance of cyber-bullying fueled by anonymity. I highly doubt Justin or his family would send a subpoena to find out who every single user is, but maybe they should. Comments about him are just as disgusting as the comments about the Law School students.

This type of cyberbullying, however, has another unfortunate consequence. The little kids who, with parent supervision, watch this video learn a lesson beyond the wholesome delivered about first love. They learn that people, when hidden by the mask of the internet, are vile. For me, these people are scarier than anything I saw this past weekend, dead or undead. I can only imagine how scared I’d have been at age 9 (the age of Willow Smith, “singer” of the now ubiquitous song “Whip My Hair”).

So I ask: why do we allow this type of anonymity? If a blog so utterly tasteless as “Skanks in NYC” can be considered horrible enough to warrant publication of the author’s name, why aren’t we protecting everyone, especially Children, from this type of online garbage? If nothing else, why is there no filter on youtube to block use of the words fag, nigger, testicle, etc? I sometimes wish these post-ers on youtube could taste their own verbal spew. Show these posts to their wives, their children, or their parents. See if they still feel brave enough to talk about testicle munching and how Justin Bieber’s greatest dream is to have sex with his father.

My biggest question is: why is this even an issue? Everyone, including most of the post-ers, know these types of words are wrong. Anonymity gives us the power to speak our minds, this much is true, but the courts have the power to root out hateful, libelous, material. Why is there no system to prevent it from happening in the first place?

Anonymity – by “Julie S”

Anonymity on the web is taken for granted as a right under the First Amendment – but should it be? “Skanks in NYC” hardly seems comparable to the writers of the Federalist Papers.  Anonymity obviously does not come without its benefits: the sense of security in talking under anonymity fosters free speech to its fullest extent.  Without fear of recourse, free speech can both flourish, but as we’ve seen in these cases, also grow cancerously. Defamation through anonymous blogs, youtube comments and various profile accounts becomes much more likely when defamers don’t feel like there will be recourse for their speech.

But instead of protecting anonymity, we should protect the ideals behind anonymity, and create laws that protect those ideals (in particular free speech) on their own so that we can eliminate anonymity altogether.  If the origins of legal protection for anonymity stem from the democratic value of the federalist papers – the protection of free speech to speak out against the government, a justified democratic concept – then anonymity was only necessary when free speech was in danger.  Essentially, anonymity is an extra measure of protection, but one with dangerous side effects on our legal system, ones unnecessary if free speech is already protected in a competent democracy.  In fascist regimes, anonymity is the only means to any semblance of free speech. But if we strengthen our legal system so that free speech is in no ways threatened, then we can eliminate the not only cumbersome and extraneous, but legally problematic extra measure of anonymity protection. Instead of working within a faulty legal system, we should change it. Extricating anonymity is not fascist – it’s mature.  People in a functioning democracy should be held accountable for their actions, their speeches, etc. Free speech belongs to those people with the boldness to take responsibility for their own voice.

Taking out anonymity protection can have the following effects:

  • (a) your free speech won’t constitute defamation in which case there is no recourse for rightfully making use of free speech.
  • (b) your blog constitutes defamation in which case there is legal recourse for misuse and misinterpretation of free speech.
  • (c) you would have written an offensive, non-defamatory blog post, but because you’re afraid of recourse, censor yourself.
  • (d) you would have misused free speech in a way that constitutes defamation, but now, because of fear of recourse do not end up defaming (through blogs, comments etc.)

In these four variations, (c) is the only one in which one might argue that not having anonymity protection resulted in non-democratic censorship. But the difference between defamatory and non-defamatory offensive speech is so simple – whether or not the offensive comment is factually true! Is it too much to ask of our citizens that they don’t outright lie? That they feel confident enough in our government to take responsibility for their actions and don’t preemptively skirt the law?

We shouldn’t endorse this fear of litigation, and encourage a system that protects defamation. Let’s cut the middle man, and instead create a legal environment that protects free speech where people will own up to it.  Ambiguous anonymous beings are not the citizens of the United States – we are, as individuals. Do we by fault protect the anonymity of anyone online? With the globalization of the internet, who’s to say that the identity we’re so careful to protect isn’t an American citizen? The legal system as is goes out of its way to protect identities indiscriminately … but that policy doesn’t mimic our legal system which protects its citizens.

The op-ed in the YDN about the women’s center and dke was controversial, I believe, because there was no name attached to it. We should put our names to our words and only then reap the benefits of free speech.  Anonymity should still be allowed to exist for reasons of creative, non-defamatory but potentially still critical free speech. But it is the censorship, not the anonymity itself, that is the ultimate reason we protect anonymity and that some take offense with cyberSLAPPing.  If that is the case, we should be more choosing for which circumstances should have an intrinsically legal obligation to protect anonymity.

Facebook Business Model 2.0: Infringe Now, Ask Questions Later – by “Thad D”

Well This Zucks...

Welcome to the new business model: infringe on your privacy first, ask questions later.  Now before I fully delve into the issue of Facebook’s new user privacy settings, I should note that I have always been a proponent of Facebook’s right to pursue what it feels is a profitable and satisfying business model.   Capitalism at its finest.  I have defended Facebook using what I have termed “The McDonald’s Defense”.  Often, consumers demand that businesses comply with outrageous orders.  For example, consider the following conversation:

McDonald’s Employee: Welcome to McDonald’s, may I take your order?

Customer:  Yes, hi.  I would like to order, uhm, a large double unsaturated soy mocha float, and two uncooked vegan tofu gluten-free eggs.

McDonald’s Employee:  Uh, sir, we don’t sell those-

Customer:  Oh and could those eggs be fried in omega-3 monopolyunsaturated fats from a Komodo dragon?

McDonald’s Employee:  **Confused Look**  May I help the next customer?

Of course, such a scenario seems ridiculous, but I use it to illustrate the fact that McDonald’s (i.e. Facebook) has the right to refuse service based on what it offers.  If you don’t like the way Facebook organizes its privacy controls, or any of its other features, go to Burger King (maybe, MySpace?).

But, what happened to me the other day was not a matter of asking for unreasonable privacy controls, but rather having my privacy infringed upon with a deceptive “opt-out” system.  Facebook now has a new “Instant Personalization” feature that allows partner websites to access personal information stored on Facebook’s servers without you knowing.  That’s right: FACEBOOK GAVE NO NOTICE OF THIS SERVICE, the only “warning” they gave was a small blue box at the top of each person’s home page that said privacy settings had changed.  Only after clicking “Learn More…” and digging to the very last section did I discover the feature.  Then, when I tried to disable it, I was confronted with the following confirmation page:

The More You Share, The More You Care (For Facebook's Wallet?)

Note that, although I have some of the strictest privacy settings on Facebook (no public search and the only things people who aren’t my friends can do are message me or add me as a friend), I was automatically opted into this Instant Personalization module.

So Facebook, where does that leave us?  You’re probably right, the “richness of the social interaction” from these new features is probably worth the hassle of a slight loss of anonymity because they provide so much convenience.  But why make it so hard to opt out?  Why not notify us about these changes?  WHAT INFORMATION ARE YOU GLEANING FROM THESE PROGRAMS THAT MAKE YOU WANT US TO PARTICIPATE SO BADLY?  WHAT IS “THE MAN” PAYING YOU?

Please, Mark Zuckerberg, get back to me on that.  You know how to reach me: just add “Thaddeus Diamond” as a friend, and click “Share”!

Playing Clue 2.0: “It was Olivia in the Lab with a Candlestick” becomes “You’re 78% sure that guy in your English class is gay.” – by “Evin M”

If you understand this commercial, you know how to play the game, too.

In the age of Facebook, myriad popular sites offer user-friendly experiences online to willing participants of all demographics. The moderately tech-literate have become habituated to handing over personal information about themselves in exchange for access to internet services. That expository act is rarely mulled over by users, often because the alternative would shut them out from activities which are increasingly becoming socially requisite. Social networking platforms add social value to displaying personal information publicly thereby making it widely available to other users, the platform itself, and any privy third parties. For the most part, these high-profile identification games have stayed in the academic and commercial arenas, fueling research and product advertising. However, in February of 2009, 4chan users demonstrated their similar gumshoe prowess with more benevolent applications. 4channers were outraged by a video of a child abusing his cat, identified him, and contacted local authorities. The suspect was arrested, the feline rescued, and the high-stakes game of Clue formerly played by big buisness and universities yielded unforseen consequences. From these examples, it is easy to extrapolate the more sinister and invasive uses of data mining and brokering–an emerging frontier novel and amorphous enough to evade regulation to date.

Recent data mining experiments have further exposed the prevalence of persistent identity, a consequence of the public’s robustly developed online personalities which has tied real-world individuals to their internet personas more closely than ever before. These involved projects sift through nameless banks of detailed information about users’ internet behavior, using their habits to reverse engineer their real-life counterparts. At MIT, a pair of students facebook stalked over 4,000 profiles, analyzing details like friend circles and tracking identifying traits until they were able to predict whether a guy was gay from the information displayed on his page. Their final product–78% accuracy–is an undeniable indicator of the trail of breadcrumbs that lead from our online identities to our real ones. A similar project allowed Carnegie Mellon researchers to dig up people’s place date of birth and use that information to uncover their Social Security numbers.

Social networking tools have become the most powerful and comprehensive information aggregators ever, encouraging users to submit and disseminate every intimate detail of their lives. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was taken aback by the extent to which data collection could produce comprehensive infocaches, a gasping response that I found amusing. Specifically dedicated online services, like Netflix, are able to draw accurate, specific conclusions about their users from the information that they inevitably share as part of using the service. Federal discomfort and private litigation brought Netflix’s crowdsourced research into improving the accuracy of their users’ movie tastes to a screeching halt. The F.T.C. and Congress are squirming in their seats, making statements about how third parties, like advertisers, have access to far too much information about internet users’ habits. I find their surprised tone humorous–how did they not see this coming? Their shock has been more jaw-dropping than concrete action, illustrated by the flimsy mitigation suggestions like a “do not track” list similar to the “do not call” list. Wise up, guys. If you share information on the internet, odds are that you’re sharing it with the world. The architecture of the internet won’t allow that. More importantly, the users of the internet won’t allow that. We just need to get a little better at playing this new Clue, and leave fewer identifying footprints in our digital wake if we don’t like the implications of persistent identity.

Insurance hikes, privacy risks, for social media users – by “Jacob A”

The Huffington Post recently reported on an prediction made by the website, which helps insurance payers navigate and compare different rates, about a probable rise in insurance premiums for social media users. Why would social media users see home insurance hikes? Because the status-updates and other information they furnish on the social media services they use, such as Twitter or Foursquare, alert burglars as to when they’re home, and when they’re not.

Tweeting something as benign as “great tilapia tacos @ Drew’s Taco Shack” is potentially unsafe as it alerts burglars to the fact that whoever is currently eating a taco with Drew is also not home. A new wesbite,, hopes to increase awareness about the dangers of publicly providing too much information, so it collects tweets and Facebook status updates and displays them to the world for anyone to see. means to make people realize the dangers of constantly updating and disseminating their location at all times, but it does so by letting robbers know when you’re not home, which is, although an admittedly pretty funny way of getting thoughtless social media users to think twice before tweeting “I’m I’m at Cali Yogurt,” also a lawsuit waiting to happen.

That said, it really is easy enough to find out where a sizeable chunk of the population lives by using Google’s phone number look up on a number or address. Consider also the enormous amounts of information provided by Google Earth or Streetview, and the extent to which digital technologies empower house robbers (or identity-thieves or other poorly intentioned individuals) becomes abundantly clear.

But even admitting that “criminals are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their information gathering… to plan their burglaries with military precision,” as Darren Black, the head of home insurance at, has pointed out – does this justify insurance hikes? What standards of burglar-sensitive stupidity (e.g. “Oh no! In Mexico for three days & think I forgot to turn the heat off at home!”) will insurance providers use? How does one gauge burglary (or other) risks from a tweet or Facebook status update?  And isn’t the very purpose and function of social media to disseminate opinions, constantly updated personal information, microstatements about daily life and wherabouts? Insurance hikes might make sense if there is an actual increase in risk because of social media use, but they also go against the nature of these services. The Huffington Post article refers to a news clipping from 1983 warning telephone users about the dangers of voicemail. “If you have an answering machine that tells callers you are not at home it could alert potential burglars, advises Family Circle magazine.”

Isn’t the fear over the disclosure of too much information via Twitter et. al. unsubstantiated, given the fact that a great portion of tweets are sent via mobile (and hence out of the home) anyway? Wouldn’t home insurance hikes for social media users be just as silly as if they were applied to phone-owners who didn’t change their voicemail?

But the kinds of information we propagate online through 4square and Facebook and Twitter also point to the kind of information ecology we would like to live in. Sure, it’s easy enough to make your entire Facebook page private – but was privacy ever the point of social media? Is privacy, as Mark Zuckerberg (in)famously recently stated, “no longer a social norm.”

But, then, where does one draw the line between stupidity and paranoia? There are undeniable dangers to giving away too much of our privacy, but what might those be? Is it more reasonable to be worried about burglars robbing your home, or about the larger privacy or security implications of geolocative (social) media? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about national security compromises that arise when the heads of national intelligence disclose too much information online? For the average person, disclosing too much information may not be a security risk, but it certainly remains a privacy risk. Forget robbers – what about data trawllers, or hostile intelligence networks, or government agencies, or corporate interests, who amass our geolocative (and all our other) social media information?

By default, Facebook makes you publically searchable by everyone, and publically visible by everyone in your networks. Default settings go more often unchanged then not. Privacy is not a default setting. The question is whether it still remains a social standard.

Social media is still a new technology. It will have direct implications on things such as hikes in home insurance premiums, as well as much larger cultural consequences. Is a social media universe where it is considered unsafe to post birthdates, pets names, phone numbers, photos a friendly one? A social one? We may have to value privacy and friendliness against each other.

Researching online subjects: a few conflicts – by “Chuen-Yee C”

As the use of web 2.0 tech continues to grow, researchers and developers who decide to study the effect of MMOGs, forums, and social networking spaces must face a new strain of ethical dilemma. These new environments are ripe for research on human interactions, social structures, and the nature of fandoms and group generativity; but do the usual rules of research ethics apply to non-traditional spaces?

Rules of ethics are around to protect human subjects from harm. People online are just as human, but the ways in which research is conducted and informed consent required still remains a somewhat undefined area. Informed consent is required for research, as well as the assurance that the researcher will not let the subject come to harm or cause harm. In an online setting, if a researcher is going to be interacting with or studying people, these people have the right to be told, given the chance to opt-out, and be assured that they will not meet with any harm. But how do you make sure you don’t hurt someone when you’ll probably never know if it happens? Interacting online means that you may not know how something really affects them. People get depressed and can commit suicide because of things that happen to them online or in virtual spaces; real psychological harm can be inflicted.

The experimental model for research doesn’t exactly work when studying existing spaces; researchers are more likely to take a field research approach. But what happens when someone in the “field” doesn’t want to participate? If the “field” is perceived to belong to the users before the researcher came along? This obviously causes problems for the researcher’s desire to study the space, and there’s no clear answer as to what form of reconciliation should take place.

The anonymity that comes with being a research subject should not be conflated with the default anonymity that most people assume online. In real life, one glance at a subject or at least some related background information (untied to the subject’s name) can reveal if they are part of a “vulnerable population”—children, the disabled, mentally unstable, and so on. However, online it is hard to determine who falls into one of these categories and who doesn’t. To borrow a concept from Rawls, in dealing with the online populace we have to assume a stance behind a “veil of ignorance” and afford everyone the protection given the “vulnerable populations.” In assuming that everybody is vulnerable, we can avoid ethical liability.

Confidentiality is another issue; nobody knows anything about anybody besides what they choose to reveal most of the time, but as demonstrated in the Scalia situation, publically available information can be readily compiled and trends inferred. When dealing with social media, there might be a great deal of personal information within the researcher’s grasp. Screennames are just as a part of people’s identities as anything else, and can leave a (somewhat incriminating) paper trail, if researched thoroughly enough. Gamer tags and forum screenames may go back for years; personally speaking, I’ve carried the same screenname for over ten years.

And what about the researchers themselves? There are a myriad of perceptions about the Internet, social networking sites, forums, online games, and the people who use or play them. If a researcher can’t approach the subjects or subject matter with an unbiased position we expect in lab studies, they probably shouldn’t be studying it. Conflicts of interest may also emerge, say if a researcher’s relative is a marketer at a firm that uses social networking apps to market their products.

Online spaces are used more and more for social, political, recreational, and economic purposes and have great potential to reveal a lot about ourselves as individuals and the larger social picture. However, the research on online spaces must be carefully gathered or else we may just end up perpetuating previous attitudes or gathering inaccurate data. The common definition of experiment doesn’t work well in online spaces; because the space is different, new ethical guidelines need to be laid out.