Recently, Quora turned on a new feature called Views. Views basically keeps track of what you are looking at and passively shares that information with others.
Some people are very angry about this, seeing it as intrusion of their privacy.
And others get grumpy about said people and make shitty image memes. Like this.
All of which ignores the point. Back in the old days when we still talked about social software, before it all became that ghastly phrase ‘social media’,1 it would be fucking obvious why this reaction is stupid.
The reason is that word, social. Social spaces aren’t just about you, they are about everybody. The rules and the code that is put in place and the enforcement or defaults that those rules put in place shape how the social space works in subtle ways.
People approach social software and online social spaces with a very rule-bound lawyerly approach. What are my rights? What are my responsibilities? What are the rights and responsibilities of the owners of the space? This is a stupid approach to dealing with the difficult questions. Sure, you have free speech rights, you have free association rights, etc. etc. But the person designing the social space makes decisions and chooses defaults that set up the sort of space they want, in much the same way that the owner of a bar might choose or not choose to have a jukebox.
If I objected to the presence of a jukebox in a bar, telling me “well, you don’t have to use the jukebox” isn’t actually addressing my concern. If I choose to not go back to the bar, it’s because the jukebox may have actually changed the nature of the social space.
The objection to ‘Views’ on Quora for me is very simple. It has the potential to reveal information people had no intention of revealing, and by the time they notice, it’s too late. I personally don’t have a problem with people seeing what I am looking at on Quora. I may turn it off anyway, but I’m okay with sharing what I’m reading.
But I’m very concerned that others will get caught out looking at things they don’t want others to see. Consider…
- A nervous teenager is hiding that they have an eating disorder. They read What does it feel like to be anorexic? followed by What is it like to recover from an eating disorder?, both of which appear as read on their timeline. A friend from school now infers that they are anorexic and spreads it around to the whole school.
- A closeted gay teenager reads How do you deal with homophobic parents? to learn how to deal with his extremely homophobic parents. This appears as a ‘view’, his parents find out he looked at the question, infer he’s gay and chuck him out of the house.
- A married man reads Why is it wrong for a married man to visit prostitutes? and his spouse infers from this that he has been visiting a prostitute.
- An engaged person reads Is there any way to tell if a person is likely to cheat in a relationship? Their partner finds out and is offended that they are not fully trusted by their partner even though their partner has reassured them that they trust them not to cheat.
- A young woman in a fundamentalist Islamic family is caught reading How did it feel to leave Islam? and is promptly killed for bringing dishonour on the family. (And, yes, I met a woman from a Muslim family at an atheist event once who said that she dare not imagine what would happen if her father found out that she was there. Probably not execution, but nothing good.)
- An employee reads What are tips for quitting / leaving a job gracefully? or How do you ask your boss for a raise? or Am I doomed to be unhappy with my work if I’ve been unhappy at my last three places of work? and his or her boss finds out.
Because these ‘views’ are being passively shared, it’s very easy for the user to have no idea that they are being shared. Yes, they can take precautions, and turn Views off. The time at which they realise this is possible may be way too late.
Trying to stop discussions of the social nature of social software and social media is basically the online version of Thatcher’s famous claim that “there is no such thing as society”.
Reducing all discussions of the design of social software to “well, you can opt-out” is as unproductive as people who respond to criticisms of their country with “love it or leave it!” or “if you love Communism so much, why don’t you just move to Russia?” etc.
Update Just had a thought actually. Imagine if someone made a service that could read your brain and then broadcast a little thought-cloud above your head with a few key words describing what you are thinking about. Sure, you could opt-out, but responding to every objection to the idea with “yeah, but you can opt-out” is dumb. The objection is that it would change the social space in which we live by making public what probably ought to be private. And you can’t opt-out of the social changes that a new feature introduces, even if you opt-out of having your information shared in that way.