Participatory surveillance

My personal librarian has submitted the link below for consideration. What? You don’t have your own personal librarian? Gee, I’m sorry. That must really suck.

Anyhow, that’s an article in the online info science journal First Monday with the title “Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance.” The author’s abstract states:

In this article, I argue that online social networking is anchored in surveillance practices. This gives us an opportunity to challenge conventional understandings of surveillance that often focus on control and disempowerment. In the context of online social networking, surveillance is something potentially empowering, subjectivity building and even playful – what I call participatory surveillance.

We’ve all heard the frantic shrieks about nubile youths being chatted up online by drooling geezers, and parental types get nearly as excitable over the prospect that new graduates will have to answer during job interviews for the photos from spring break they posted on myspace or flickr. Albrechtslund correctly observes that any sort of online presence at all is widely perceived to expose someone to scrutiny and possible abuse in some vague way by unknown, unknowable, and probably shady types with more curiosity than morals. Curiously, that earnest concern is even more widely completely ignored.

When you mop up all the froth this discussion engenders and take even a quick look, you can’t ignore how completely and deeply the stern warnings miss the point. People of all ages gleefully interact online, happily struting their bad selves right out in the open. What, oh what, will come of all this ill-considered electronic exhibitionism? Do these (often young) fools fail to notice the horrors they risk? Who knows who will learn what tender and compromising details? Even apparently sensible adults blithely ignore the mysterious horrors of online surveillance and flock to the equivalent of cocktail parties in glass houses, open to observation by anyone with eyes.

Sites for personal ads and online dating are mobbed by people earnestly hoping to be surveilled by someone nice. LinkedIn is much the same thing, only in business suits. And it’s already gone a big step further, when Peter Morville enthuses about the happy day to come when our clever phones will chat among themselves to all in range, seeking through the sea of unknown faces around us for matches in interest profiles, reading lists, music collections, and thousands of other traits. We can then present ourselves to our new-found friends with the ice already broken and talking points listed. No more of that tedious getting to know one another and wasting time on those of limited interest. A quickie, automated google-stalk while refreshing a drink might just spell the difference between a hook-up made in heaven and another wasted evening.

That might sound like negative spin, and I confess some discomfort with the mechanical way all this seems designed to play out. But people are involved, and I think they can be relied on to humanize it according to their need. More seriously, I am by default an energetic proponent of an option for privacy. I would rather that sites refrain from logging information about me, except to meet some specific and legitimate need. And I’ll be the one to determine that legitimacy and then choose to access the site or not based on published privacy guidelines, while demanding that practice actually follow those guidelines. But once I decide to participate, it’s my decision to put myself in play and not the site somehow victimizing me.

Within those limits, why the hell not look online for clever, compatible folks to talk to and maybe work with and who knows what else? The argument seems to be that content might be available to an audience other than the one it was intended for. This could be a problem because of the content; if it’s something problematic (illegal, immoral, or otherwise inappropriate) then a prior question arises about introspection over the motivation for dabbling in such content. I firmly believe that’s a very rare situation.

Or maybe the audience is the problem. Someone under investigation for a security clearance can expect the inquisitors to ask about anything that comes to their attention. Few of us want mom reading everything we might write. But the real issue here is a mismatch between the content and audience. Neither is a problem separately, but the thought of their intersection can cause a nasty itch. In reality, though, who has the attention span or the motivation to track down your catalog of Hangovers I Have Known?

You can post that somewhere that others with an appeciation will see it, and that’s extremely likely to be that. If someone finds it and feels some discomfort — or anger or disgust — as a result, that’s an indicator that the two of you might lack enough in common to be close associates. Beyond a basic, ordinary caution and respect for context, life offers too many possibilities to spend a lot of energy fretting about those still on the waiting list for a broomstickectomy.

An open public presence is more likely than anything else to attract involvements of desired kinds among consenting adults. (The parents can take responsibility for their kids in this area, as they do in others.) After all, the world might be a better place if Joe or Jane College were to tell the recruiter, “If you don’t want to see pictures of me mooning my friends from a balcony in Cancun, maybe you shouldn’t look at those kinds of websites. Now about that job description you posted . . . ”

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