My explorations backstage at the Internet Show continue looking at privacy issues on Google Hangouts and reflections on digital privacy as part of building a personal cyberinfrastructure.
Whilst I reside on the Internet, I am a visitor when it comes to privacy. I don’t want strangers to know I am there and I certainly don’t want uninvited guests on my video calls. It turns out that when you record a video call on a Google hangout it has to be set to public – you have a ‘Hangout on Air’ or a ‘Hangout’ but no ‘private recorded hangout’ feature yet. So, as I had a team meeting on a hangout on air, I discovered the delights of Trolling behaviour that YouTube is (in)famous for. Well, I say that as if I have known about it all my life, but I found it out researching for this post. It turns out that a troll is ‘any person that comments or leaves their response to a video that negatively effects the community, or provokes the emotions of others in a negative way’. You can also go online to learn how to do it, with some handy student guides or by visiting certain forums. I learnt that some trolls have even been jailed for extreme behaviour…but back to my hangout.
I signed off after an eventful (technical problems saw us lose a team member again this week) hangout, looking forward to working out how Google managed to get a video of my hangout on my YouTube channel automatically. Let me own up – I use YouTube but have always refused to post anything on it as was concerned about privacy issues and had no time to navigate backstage to ensure my settings were aligned to my personal values on internet use. Well, as soon as I logged on I had to get a crash course on YouTube privacy. I was glad that I did not know how to use the software so that all the commenting had happened in the background and we just did not see comments as we got on with our work. I saw 24 comments and frankly, panicked. Yes, I have unresolved issues that lead me to protect my privacy online – more on this later in the post – but it was not an overreaction to feel angry when I found out that strangers had been listening to my private conversation.
So, I read the comments. I noted that it was only 2 users interacting with each other and attempting to get a reaction from us as we talked. I calmed down a little. I used the transparency of the Internet to find out about them. It turns out one of them (scary, but not really, as you will see later) had tracked me down on Google Plus and sent me a message ordering me to ‘Look at your comments’. From there, it was easy to find him and no, I did not want to add him to my circles, thank you very much Google Plus. A photo of a kid who could not be older than 8 at the top of the profile. What did I do? Nothing. I did not know then that this is the advise given to deal with this behaviour in sensible places but after thinking about the many ways I could make him suffer for scaring me – I figured out I was better off blocking him, deleting all my comments from YouTube, blocking both users on YouTube, changing my privacy settings to Unlisted by default, Unlisted my video, blocked all comments on the video, and asked any viewer to sing the national anthem of their country of origin before they could click play. Just kidding on that last one. The whole process took 3 hours – the issue is, of course, that none of these social media sharing sites make it easy for you to be private. There were other factors at play for the length of time it took me to sort out: I was exhausted and trying to get a task done that had nothing to do with navigating privacy settings on YouTube and Google Plus. I was annoyed that I was having to do this at all, and hence not exactly in the frame of mind to learn how to use yet another service. As it turned out, there had been no need to panic, it was just 2 silly kids messing around, nothing malicious about it. It left a bitter taste in my mouth, nevertheless. I set out to learn from the experience. I needed to tackle my unresolved privacy issues. I could not have it both ways – stay private and become an open scholar. Or could I?
Firstly I needed to challenge my fear of ‘being seen’ on the web by strangers. I started to think about the similarities between my home in the physical real and the different ‘homes’ I am establishing in my virtual life. What rules apply? Are the rules for the physical and the virtual regarding privacy the same? Can I expect the same reasonable behaviour from people online as I expect in real life? I did a little thought experiment – How did what has just happened online translate to the physical?
I am having a conversation at home with a friend in my living room. Intruders got in earlier, installed a camera and are watching us talking outside my home. Well the cue is in the word ‘intruder’, it is illegal. In the days of yore, we used to get ‘cross lines’ and would find strangers on the phone intruding in private conversations. I remember always finding this unsettling.
This was not illegal as it happened due to technical difficulties and intruders were not intentionally interfering in my conversations. What if 2 strangers knocked at my door and said can we come and sit into your conversation? Let’s say for the sake of argument that I let them in, and they started interrupting: What’s that? Why are you not looking at us? What are you talking about? I had given them permission to sit in, not to interrupt. This led me to think about the choices we make around privacy both in the virtual and the physical. These choices are driven, in part, by our psychological make-up and also by our knowledge about what is legal and possible. If I live in the USA I can carry a gun to protect my privacy but not in the UK. We have trespassing laws in most countries that we can draw on if intruders move into our land. I do not carry a gun or have No trespassing signs in my physical home. So I started to think about how I protect my privacy in the physical realm – I live in an isolated and quiet spot, only people who are invited can find me, if unannounced visitors come they ring a door bell and I can choose to open the door or ignore them. People can leave messages on the phone or in the post box asking to visit – I can say yes or no.
So, I took this to the online realm. Unlisted in YouTube means only those I invite can find me. I like that. Strangers can leave insistent messages to come and visit but I can ignore them, exactly what I did with my little YouTube trolls. On the Internet I also get to block them so that they cannot bother me again – like imposing an injunction in the physical.
All this led me to think about how I feel when I am on holidays, I am a visitor to a place, nobody knows I am there. It is quite freeing for me.
I now come back to online life and how this event made me reflect and take decisions on the private/public boundary online. I went to David White (2011) and his distinction between residents and visitors to foreground strategies people use for online life. He makes the distinction as follows:
‘Ultimately to Visitors the Web is simply one of many tools they can use to achieve certain goals; it is categorised alongside the telephone, books, pen and paper and off–line software. It is not a ‘place’ to think or to develop ideas and to put it crudely, and at its most extreme, Visitors do their thinking off–line. So Visitors are users, not members, of the Web and place little value in belonging online.’
‘Residents see the Web primarily as a network of individuals or clusters of individuals who in turn generate content. Value online is assessed in terms of relationships as well as knowledge. Residents do not make a clear distinction between concepts of content and of persona. A blog post is as much an expression of identity as it is a discussion of particular ideas.’
It turns out that as far as my motivation to be online is concerned I am a visitor and not a resident. This came as a surprise to me as I associated the idea of residency with digital literacy. The more digitally literate I became the more I would become a fully fledged resident – yet I always felt uncomfortable with that as it seemed to violate what I perceive as my right to associate with people I choose to and not have to put up with ‘intruders’ in my private life. White clarified this for me when he says it is not as simple as ‘characterising digital literacy as a simple drive towards Residency’. He states he knows of highly digitally literate people who are visitors as a matter of choice. Yes! A sigh of relief as I begin to see a way to align my desire to use the Internet to achieve my goals and also to engage with it in a way that fits with my own values – to make choices about who I chose to engage with and ‘get to know’.
White also highlights implications for design when considering users/members motivations,
‘This Visitor, Resident distinction is useful when considering which technologies to provide for online learners. For example if your learners are mainly Visitors they are unlikely to take advantage of any feed based system for aggregated information you may put in place. They are also unlikely to blog or comment as part of a course. The Resident will expect to have the opportunity to offer opinions on topics and to socialise around a programme of study. In fact they are likely to find ways of doing this even if they are not ‘officially’ provided.’
We use tools differently if we are of a Resident orientation than if we are of a Visitor orientation. It explained why I have always seen Facebook as an invasion of my privacy and why my first action when I joined was to set everything to ‘only me’ but later peer pressure made me change those settings. I always said my action was that of an introvert using social media – not for friends but for a purpose. I think that White’s visitors are the introverts of the web and his residents the extroverts. I go to great lengths when I teach about this distinction to show that psychological predisposition is not about right or wrong. It is not even that both sides of the argument are ‘correct’, there is not argument. There are just different preferences that lead us to behave differently in our virtual and real lives. The old fashioned way of looking at this as immigrants and digital natives was put to bed when we found out that ‘when it comes to finding and evaluating sources in the Internet age, students are downright lousy.’ (Kolowich, 2011). They may be whizzy on the computer but don’t know how to meaningfully narrow a search or get past the google bubble. Digital natives are not necessarily digitally literate or able to make a choice to be a visitor or a resident depending on their psychological preferences. The relevant parameter according to White is motivation for use not how whizzy I can be when I am using it or wether I was born to iPad!
I went back to Facebook and set my privacy settings to ‘nobody can find me on pain of death’. I can use the Facebook space to work and learn and share with my family – but I do not want to use it for anything else. I now can use YouTube as a workspace and not engage with comments at all. I can socialise on Google Plus around topics of interest rather than chit chat filtering my circles accordingly and my posts as I go. I use Linked In as a place of work, to hold one to many work relationships that do not require one-to-one maintenance as Martin Weller says in ‘The Digital Scholar’. He calls these relationships ‘light’ and explains we are engaged in a ‘reciprocal economy’ online. I would use more the label ‘transactional’. My privacy settings on LinkedIn are such that people can find me, but they cannot see my network – I value my privacy and like to respect the privacy of my network unless I agree on a case by case basis to let others know about my connections. I took the opportunity to review these settings whilst writing this post and have decided that my public profile should now only contain summary information but I that I should remain anonymous when viewing other people’s profiles – double standards?
What is interesting is that in working out my privacy strategy – a visitor in love with my holiday spot – I have resolved a long standing dilemma in my digital life. I have always felt embarrassed about the fact that I live online but that I want my living space to be aligned to my psychological preferences in real life – that is KEEP OUT unless I invite you into my home. I have learnt that I can choose a lifestyle online in the same way I choose one offline. My fear to be forced to become an extrovert/resident online running a draining social life I do not want, had kept me from using many tools (such as Youtube). I have learnt that withdrawal is not the only strategy and that in fact as Jaron Lanier (2010) tells us if we want to avoid depersonalisation we can engage with the tools in a way that mirrors our personal preferences, not one where we allow the online environment to bully us into acting against our psychology.
In researching this piece I came across the fact that I am not alone in struggling with social media forcing me to be social rather than focussed. It turns out that there is an evolving trend for niche social networking sites. And that some of these are exploiting those of us who value our privacy, creating private social networks that promise ‘unprecedented privacy controls, both in terms of how [they] allow you to post in secret to specific groups or contacts, and in how you allow the site to use your data. While literally every major social network is scraping, reselling, and sharing your personal information, [with us] you retain total control of your private data.’ Aaaaah! Music to my ears. Where do I sign? Another network promises to create a network so private that only my neighbours can join; it ‘requires a real address to sign up, and then places you in a hyperlocal network with your neighbors and peers’ or there is one that promises not to be ‘a social networking site to blast to thousands of followers, but a place to stay in touch with the real people in your life’. Check here for details on these examples and an overview of this trend that realises that ‘users don’t want to share with hundreds of fake “friends” anymore, but rather want to share with local real-life groups and communities. This marks a major shift in how social networking users behave online, and [shows that] private social networks  will only continue to gain popularity.’
And in case you are wondering how to find out if you are an introvert or an extrovert to help you align your online strategy with your psychology, you can take a fun test here. I make no recommendations for the results – if you want a reliable test you will have to pay.
And in closing some advise from somebody who knows much more than me about developing an online persona, Jaron Lanier (2010) in ‘You are not a gadget’. His advise is aimed at reducing our sense of depersonalisation online, but I believe it applies here because one of the ways we feel depersonalised is by feeling forced to work against our psychology. His argument is more that depersonalisation is caused by software that forces us to ‘disaggregate’ ourselves on different clouds, a feeling I know well and counteract by my little open but private website that I call ‘One place please’ – put together on the early days of developing a digital life as I found myself with so many open windows I literally ‘could not find myself’. But that is for another time. I come back to Lanier’s useful advise: use the internet to make you think and engage, shape the tools to you not the other way around. Else you may find yourself closer than you think to Dreyfus’s warning back in 1999 that the danger was not the advent of super intelligent computers but the advent of super stupid humans as we adapted to the tools we had rather than shape them to us.
I now feel at ease with the anonymous, consequence-free behaviour of my little trolls. I do not have to engage. I also feel at ease with my 4 friends on Facebook as I know from my meditation practice that ‘if you go out to confirm the 10 thousand things that is delusion, if the 10 thousand things come to confirm you that is enlightenment’, as said by Dogen Zenji in the 13th century. This is as true in the physical realm as it is on Facebook and YouTube; except that if the 10 thousand things come and find me there, they will find a note saying ‘comments disabled’. Tehee! Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.
What a journey! From finding out about and getting my own little trolls to reflecting and starting to resolve privacy dilemmas that had bothered me for years. I should set up a new blog and call it ‘The social media introvert – the power of introverts in social networks that cannot stop posting’. Apologies Susan Cain.