No one knows you’re a dog, but they know where you are…

Posted: June 21, 2010 in Social Networks, The Internet

For as long as I can remember, the Internet provided an odd kind of shroud: it was frequently possible to have a sort of alter ego online. This 1993 New Yorker cartoon articulated this beautifully, and for more than a decade it was the posterchild, literally, of the Internet. MySpace, in its role pioneering the “social network” didn’t do much to change our relationship to the web; it was common for people to have multiple identities there, a range of personas, allowing people to socialize “differently” as different people. Facebook’s not-often-discussed power was always that everyone was a “real person.” You couldn’t hide your real name- and you could only have one account. The earthshaking difference here cannot be overstated. This position was antithetical to the entire way the Internet had evolved. In 2005 I recall it as being novel and refreshing. Before that social networks felt frivolous and stupid. Facebook felt “real.”

By having real people being themselves, other real human dynamics naturally flowed in, and among those were exhibitionism and voyeurism. A lot of people liked living in the open, and even more people enjoyed poking around and getting a glimpse into other people’s lives. Truth is always so much more interesting than fiction. You can’t make that stuff up…

I’m reminded of a wonderful documentary I saw at Sundance ’91 about Coney Island; director Ric Burns went into detail about the success of the Steeplechase – it wasn’t how much fun the ride was, but that people gathered to watch the riders tumble off at the end – it became a spectator sport. This is the nature of “the social web” in general, and Facebook in particular. The addition of “location” into the social web pushes this even further toward an extreme that, while conferring a number of wonderful advantages, also introduces discomfort.

As I said, It used to be that you could have a number of personalities online (which, I propose is not always nefarious and often pragmatic – we are arguably different people with our workmates, our college buddies and our families – and pretending we could maintain a single persona is probably unrealistic.) It also used to be that we could work from anywhere, that we could be location-less on the Internet. I remember the moment I realized that with a laptop and a cell phone, I could be “at work” anywhere I happened to sit down, and that this wasn’t deceptive so much as utterly empowering. In that case, I had left California and was sitting in my brother’s office in Santa Fe, New Mexico… but as far as every single person I interacted with in my workday, nothing was different, nor should it have been. This continues to be true, of course, but now that location information can be tied to my online activities, my relationship with the social-web is changed, in many cases, for the worst.

But “geo” is a modern marvel; it’s only the connecting it to social and, particularly, my “real” identity on Facebook, that sends up warning flares. As has been pointed out by journalists with wonderful clarity, it’s not that I want to be deceptive, but there are times when broadcasting my location will be awkward. And turning off the tracking when I want to be stealth is sometimes just as bad, creating a conspicuous absence that demands attention, and looking all the world like the 18.5 minute gap in the Nixon Watergate tapes…

Maybe the problem is that on Facebook we tend to have hundreds of friends, most of which are only loosely “friends” – more like acquaintances than anything else (didn’t someone prove that we can only truly manage 3 or 4 “close” friends, and only a few dozen more that are anything like “real” friends?) This change in the definition of friends and conflating that with fans begins to alter the bedrock of transparency that makes social networks fun and useful. And not just that we have more people “watching” than we ever used to, in increasingly undefined kinds of relationships, but that by sheer number, the work it takes to manage “who sees what” increases beyond the point of practicality. We just toss up our hands and say “f*ck it – if they care what I had for breakfast, it won’t bother me” but that rationale breaks down with location. Where I happen to be and where I go is far more personal than what I think.  What I think and have to say is in the “No one knows you’re a dog” category; but where I am turns the internet into an intimacy lens, forcing me to make decisions I don’t want to make — “do i want them to know where i am?” Really? I am expected to answer that question with frequency? I don’t want to.

We don’t want to throw the baby out with this particular rejection of bathwater: the geo data itself isn’t the problem, just the platforms where it resides. Personally, I think we have a better way…

  1. grant says:

    MR – Despite your universal cyber citizen epiphany in your brother’s office in santa Fe, I can tell you from bitter aggravating experience that you cannot travel anywhere you want and think the www is the www. I just spent 6 months in New Zealand and can’t even count the number of times websites and info-accessing I depend on while in the US told me “not available in your country”.
    iTunes still thinks I’m in NZ and reccommends NZ music to me even though i certainly didn’t tell iTunes i was ever there.
    I guess the geo component is IP# based? However it works, it’s damn annoying. The fact is apparently not every place is created equal, copyrights and other rights divide the globe up into economically controllable bits and as always it’s all about money which seems to be controlled by even fewer people with more guarded and inaccessible knowledge than ever before.

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