Tag Archives: digital

Secrets And Whispers: The Social Limits Of An Anonymous Internet

Secret - Speak Freely

“If you could kill someone once a year and get away with it, would you?”

This was an anonymous message posted to the app Secret and according to its algorithm, was written by someone I know.

Users were outraged and dismayed at the words, quickly posting comments like  “get help” and “what’s wrong with you?!”

I was somewhat reassured by the decibel level, readjusting my social antennae slightly towards some semblance of moral compass. The reactions served as a reminder that oftentimes in social media, communities tend to police themselves.

It got me thinking. Was the writer serious – or was he or she merely taking advantage of the medium to be controversial?

Will we ever really know what kind of friends we have? And what does that say about us? (Am I that messed up too?!)

Secret and Whisper are mobile apps that allow users to anonymously post thoughts generally 1-sentence in length. The unmoderated submissions  range from from fluffy to business-ish  (e.g. Silicon Valley rants and rumours) to the profound. The delight lies in where these topics intersect –  a technological venn diagram distributing random missives to the masses.

Twenty years ago at the dawn of the popular internet, anonymity was de rigeur. Digital omnivores created arbitrary handles and sent requests for information only when we could confirm, to the best of our naive ability, that the information sent was heavily encrypted on the receiving side.

With each considering keystroke of our credit card we added a fake layer of security, a counteragent framed of deliberation and trust.

Tap, tap. Tap, tap. I. Am. Trusting. This.

In chatrooms and private messages we reduced our identity to the most basic credentials.

30/f. New York City.

We placed a premium on self-disclosure.

In recent years, these allowances turned a significant corner. Not only did we become eager to share our personal information but we did so in a way to showcase our best possible self. This showmanship comes at a price –  there’s no ability to retreat from the real world through anonymous browsing or mutual confession.

Disappearing messages are also of trend.  In this model, content disappears after a preselected duration of seconds. Most evidenced is the wild success of SnapChat, who turned down a $3B (yes, billion) offer from Facebook, deciding instead to retain ownership and go forth on their own.

The messaging service was rendered primarily for serving the needs of a typical lowest common denominator, in this case sexting. While the postings aren’t anonymous, their temporal nature provides a semblance of safety since in theory, the content will no longer exist thirty seconds from now.

Online privacy has always been a hotbed issue, and anonymity with some added ephemerality appear to be good partners  for communicating in today’s closely monitored world.

Perhaps these expedients serve instead as counteragents;  a fallback solution until we discover the real technological lifecycle here.Even if messages allegedly  “disappear” or post without provenance, there’s a precedent-setting case waiting to happen if these postings can in fact be tracked. If a threatening message is shared, will the government intervene? Should they?

Given the level of trust in digital security today, it would be little surprise if these messages were not traceable.

After all, when the message is sent, after the tiny bit of information is posted to a server somewhere, ownership is transferred from the creator to the owner along with social currency of unfair supposition. Context is lost and the message becomes subject to whomever has the largest fists and holds its grip the tightest.

Ultimately, who holds the strings?

Let’s again go back twenty years. Let’s say I took a photo (let’s say, just for fun with one of those sassy disposable cameras). I had it developed at the local drugstore and kept  the album at home. Would the government have the right to search my house?  Would they have the right to search the records from the drugstore without probable cause? And who defines probable cause, if, like my friend who posted on Secret, we’re clearly all a bit nuts?

If secure, tools like Snapchat and Secret enable us to exercise our first amendment rights. We can speak, question, and share freely without running the risk of being held to either substance or context. This goes back to the beginning of the popular internet when it was less about oversharing and more about simply…connecting.

However, this right should be exercised with caution. If  you don’t have anything nice to say…it probably shouldn’t be posted at all.

Data is the new Journal. (2 of 2)

cyber_c

Social sharing sites like Facebook and Google+ are great for countless reasons. The discovery factor is amplified and quick. We have the ability to catch up and communicate with people easily and on-the-go.

Our social networks, paired alongside various algorithms, place everything in somewhat omnidirectional proportion to our personal interests. Some folks watch the stream of information passively while others can’t help but participate. Frequently. Like a habit that’s hard to break. But habits are usually created because there’s some sort of personal payoff involved. What’s in it here?

Do we participate out of boredom? For entertainment? Documentation? Self-declaration? All of the above?

The things we share don’t go away over time. Our photos, links, and general top-of-mind fodder are almost immediately forgotten before becoming a very vague distant digital memory. Yet unlike a journal, they’re not stored privately somewhere to uncover at a later time. Our “shareables” publish immediately and are saved forever, for all to see.

The good, the bad, and the things that may or may not emerge later to haunt us. Profile photos, status updates, comments back and forth between old friends, lovers, colleagues.

It’s the personal information we post on a whim that documents where we were and what we were interested in at the time.  These bookmarks serve as a haunting benchmark – of not only where we were, but who we once were.  Some might agree that it’s a convenient way to journal — with only a wayward amount of revelatory truth.

These captured moments are issued a temporary place with degrees of importance that vary greatly. Will we care about what we shared five years ago? Probably not. It might be amusing. It may never be revisited again. But what if it were?

Not always self-aware, these tiny memoirs forget to note the times we were truly happy — because we were too busy actually being happy to take note of them in the first place.

Yet there we are — always seeming to document the times we were bored, overly caffeinated, or mildly interested  in the subject or moment at hand. And we just so happened to have the phone or laptop nearby to document said thought or story.

So how accurate is our online journaling? And would it become more truthful if we were aware of where it travels to and how it lives?

In time, all posts turn to dusty digital memories of broken links, imprints of ones and zeros lasting forever on a clunky server somewhere — available to the government along with everyone else, and yet no one at all.

The migration from analog to digital affects everything. From how we read, to how we take notes, to how we choose to access the latest episode of “Breaking Bad.” With new digital technologies, we’re even experiencing a major shift in how our own personal narratives are captured.

The media always places such huge emphasis on how the next superstars on the internet are members of its audience. Apparently anyone can be a star. In an era of reality TV shows and talent competitions, “the dream” is achievable with a little bit of talent — and a whole lotta self-disclosure.  Remember back in 2006 when TIME Magazine chose their Person of the Year?  That person has been replaced by groups of individuals. Movements. Memes. Flashmobs.

Yet stardom comes at a price. We’re encouraged to post, check in, snap photos and share, all because companies are farming our data and selling it to the highest bidder. They learn everything about us. We become numbers and marketing fodder to the most extreme degree.

So how often do we want to see that share button? We know it’s possible to overshare and likely know folks guilty of abusing it.  Even as I type this sentence into a Google document, the big blue “share” button looms above. It offers the temptation to publish or share my thoughts before the idea is even complete.

Day One is a new app for OSX that allows users to journal freely and privately. It encourages the user to create reminders to write. And for more fleeting moments, Path is an app that allows the recording of check-ins, tweets, and photos to share with a closer-knit community.

Whether it’s an advertiser or a prospective date, data mining is all too easy. We need more options for journaling privately based on the tools available to us. At the very least, we need more control over the release of our personal information. As we shift into digital and cloud-based methodologies for documenting our lives, we need to consider alternatives while moving our personal documentation to the digital space.

Revisit Part One of this series.