Model View Culture: Social Networking as Peer Surveillance

  1. By Ashe Dryden
  2. On Mar.23.2015
  3. Tagged

This piece was originally written for Model View Culture's Surveillance issue in October 2014.


Tech news articles preach the dangers of sophisticated programs at startups misusing data we give them, performing sociological experiments on us, or the NSA spying on everything we say and do.

But those things are barely on my radar.

As an outspoken, queer woman, the internet is a terrifying place. Can I trust myself, my friends, or my family not to inadvertently harm me through the information shared on social networks? What will ill-willed colleagues do with that information if and when we unintentionally trip up?

Photo of the author standing in front of a whiteboard illustrating her many social connections.Photo CC-BY John December, filtered. 

I want to tell you the story of how we came to unwittingly self- and peer-surveil, allowing the internet to near-simultaneously make our worlds bigger and smaller. I know this, because it’s my story, too.

In 2004 I moved across the country, away from everything I’d ever known. I was in a new city where I knew no one, so I turned to the internet as I’d done most of my life. This was an interesting time for the web; sites relying entirely on user-generated content were becoming big and would herald in the era we find ourselves in today. When I found out about Meetup and Upcoming, I happily told them about all things I was interested in.

I soon found myself in a community that relished sharing a physical space with internet people and we were drunk on the feeling. We took pictures, happily tagging them with both our actual and internet names, dates, events, and geolocation data. We embraced hashtags not just for events, but impromptu collaborative art projects. Social networks were uncharted territory,  a make-it-what-you-want-it-to-be atmosphere where we were explorers and inventors, discovering ways to connect, share, and feel closer to each other. In a way, the internet itself became a new friend to me – one that wanted to see the whole picture of who I was. It wanted to know what music I listened to when I was sad, what pictures made me happy, and what I wanted out of life. I found myself sharing every article I found interesting, information on the charities I donated to, and what concerts I’d be attending. In a bizarre sense I felt the more I shared of myself, the stronger that relationship could be.

It seems unimaginably naive to say I didn’t realize how all of that information could ever be used against me. I remember remarking to people who were dismayed by Twitter having made oversharing popular, “no one will care what I did today a month from now; we’re living in the moment.” But a few years provides a wealth of perspective: today, people constantly exploit little pieces of information from social networks I’ve participated in over the years to DDoS attack my websites and physically threaten, harass, and abuse me.

An obvious example of this is my income, which has become nearly fully supported by micro-donations from hundreds of people all over the world. For quite a long time, that income came through a site that advertised exactly how much money I was making and from how many people. At first this was a positive thing – people could see how much financial support projects like mine received and understand that it wasn’t as widely supported as many thought. But when I was visibly in the site’s leader board and eventually the top person receiving on the site, it became a huge problem. Reddit and Hacker News had a field day. I’d get comments and emails from people claiming my work was panhandling, prostitution, trickery, and theft. People berated me if they found out I went to a movie with my partner, feeling I was squandering the money I received. Others who had previously supported me were angry when I wouldn’t immediately drop everything I was doing to give them advice, because in their eyes, I worked for them. My ability to maintain a work/life separation effectively disappeared.

Having received threats and abuse online, I have to take extra steps to protect myself offline. I pre-emptively tell new acquaintances that they can’t post information online about where I am, where I’m going, or who I’ll be with for fear of confrontation or worse. Friends with the best of intentions asking publicly on Twitter for me to meet them at a specific place and time means having to decline a lot of invitations. It’s awkward to explain to people that they may be inadvertently putting you in danger.

I recently stopped following anyone on Twitter and replying sparsely because people graduated from attacking me directly to going after my friends and family to cause me harm. I semi-jokingly tell people that being near me is risking radiation exposure; I’ve been blackmailed into giving up relationships and fully living my life for fear of indirectly hurting the people I care about. In essence, social networks have manipulated the relationships I have with others.

Social Networks as a Panopticon

In the late 18th century, the philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham designed the Panopticon, a building that allowed a watchman to observe every occupant from one vantage point. This led occupants to act as if they were being observed at all times, regardless of whether a watchman was in the tower or observing them; the mere potential of constant surveillance altered occupant behavior.

Foucault discussed his social theory of Panopticism in Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, noting that the occupants of the Panopticon are “the object of information, never a subject in communication,” and that

He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.

In the 1970s, a piece of software called DIALOG was designed to replicate the Panopticon effect and tested at a large pharmaceutical company as part of a psychology experiment. The software allowed workers to not only report the work they were doing, but to socialize with peers. When users realized the software was allowing management to monitor them continuously, many stopped using it. Others decided to continue, “raising the question of whether remaining users modified their behavior under the threat of surveillance, as prisoners in Bentham’s Panopticon would, or whether they believed that the benefits offered by the system outweighed the possibility of punishment.”

Photo of a panopticon prison with guard tower looming before dozens of cells.Photo CC-BY Friman, filtered.

Social networks operate in much the same way. Thanks to open APIs and the limited technical talent needed to use them, the ability to monitor someone’s every activity can be easily automated and analyzed for patterns. A few weeks worth of data can give you an idea of when someone leaves for work, what coffee shop they stop at in the morning, and even what route they drive to get home. Using additional data – something as simple as a selfie – it’d be easy for a relative stranger to “recognize” you on the street.

Barring that level of sophistication, a simple observer to our online lives can still learn a lot about us. I was shocked the first time I met someone and they asked about each of my four cats by name. I’d willingly put that information out there, but I didn’t fully comprehend what someone using it would feel like.

Knowing the risks, do we alter the way we act within these systems? I’d argue that too few of us do, myself included. Only after the information I’d put out there was used to hurt me did I realize exactly how much I’d shared and how difficult it was to get back.

I don’t doubt there are dangers lurking around corners I haven’t thought of yet.

Social engineering

What allowed all of this to happen? How was I so easily fooled into living in the Panopticon? A shared and interwoven set of tenets between social networks and the people who use them create a variety of subtle pressures.

Rusty barbed wire.Photo CC-BY LongitudeLatitude, filtered.

Tenet 1: Well if it’s free, I guess I’ll take two

After just a couple years of becoming actively involved in social networks, I had a social media list that boasted nearly 30 differentactive profiles (I have no idea how many I’ve made total), but I wasn’t concerned. “It doesn’t cost me anything to try a new service”, I’d tell myself. I could play around, test the boundaries of the system and how it let me interact with people before adding it to my always-open tabs list or abandon it completely — along with my data that lived there.

Tenet 2: One identity to rule them all, and in a closed system bind them

Coupled closely with the desire to try everything is the compulsion to stake a claim to your identity on every service available. In manufacturing the scarcity of things like usernames, social networks create an anxiety on the side of the potential user; the assumption being that demand will always be higher than the supply, so urgency in account creation is required.

On top of that, larger properties have done well for themselves by creating a closed ecosystem to connect them. Google and Facebook are both good examples of this, allowing users to connect their email to their social calendars to their social networks to their contacts and so on. Participation in any of the sub-properties requires participation in the main one and encourages staying within the ecosystem by exploiting user laziness.

Tenet 3: Public is default

It’s easy to forget that the idea of privacy controls are a relatively new concept. I think the first social network I saw them on was Pownce, and even then I treated it less as a form of security and more as filling a niche need. I could share this post with that set of people and no one else can see it? How novel! At that point it didn’t even occur to me that someone could or would want to manipulate my willingness to share every detail of my life.

Social network growth is driven mainly through public sharing – the ability to see things outside the walled garden and want to participate. It should come as no surprise that startups wanting to show potential financial partners exponential user growth encourages public-as-default to the point of making it difficult or impossible to hide data.

Tenet 4: Share everything early and often

I’m just as guilty as the next person for actively encouraging my friends to share, share, share. In a world that we experience primarily through technology, we feel connected when we learn more about someone through their everyday lives. This isn’t something artificial and constructed by a marketing department, we aren’t as compelled to share because of A/B tested button color or slogan. It’s a subtle pressure; something that feels natural and familiar because it’s how we make friends, how we become better friends.

Tenet 5: Shoot first, ask questions later

Even knowing the dangers, we feel strangely safe and at home on the internet. And what feels more safe than scrolling through tumblr on your laptop in your warm bed, instagramming that weird thing your cat does, or telling your friends what you’re up to today?

In an industry where shoot first, ask questions later might as well be tattooed across the shoulders of startup employees, none of this is very surprising.

The industry has shown some hints at self-awareness of the problems it magnifies, but creates as many as it solves. Anti-social networking apps like Cloak, ostensibly used to avoid people you follow on social networks, can just as easily – and perhaps more obviously to those of us most vulnerable to confrontation or altercation – be used to stalk contacts.

Many marginalized people are using services in ways the creators may not have expected. When I received death and rape threats this past summer, it was important for me that my partner always knew where I was. I used Apple’s Find My Friends to constantly share my location. But in doing so, I’m forced to give up more privacy. It’s easy enough to forget that it’s always monitoring me; what danger could I be in if my partner knew I visited an abortion clinic, the home of an ex, or an intimate violence shelter?

There is no “outside the system”

Miraculously (and perhaps ignorantly), all of this hasn’t made me a social recluse. To this day I use services that share photos, videos, microblogs, what I read and listen to, my exercise habits, and even what I knit.

A bridge enclosed in wire fencing.Photo CC-BY Daniel Oines, cropped & filtered.

There’s no doubt that social networks use predatory practices masquerading as friendly ones to extract what they need from users and that people will exploit that easily available data to victimize marginalized people in slightly more sophisticated versions of the old ways. As marginalized people, we’re often on the safe side when taking the cynical view of things, so assuming social networks and predatory people will be out there, how do you protect yourself? A growing sub-genre of self-help books focusing on internet privacy, including Violet Blue’s The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy, may hold some of those answers.

But we shouldn’t discount what participating in social networks means for our identities. Can we celebrate and share our identities – all the little pieces that make us who we are – without sacrificing our privacy and safety? Are our identities forever altered by defiantly living within the Panopticon?

Ashe's favorite books of 2014

  1. By Ashe Dryden
  2. On Dec.09.2014
  3. Tagged reading books

This year I made a concerted effort to read books almost exclusively by marginalized people. Below are my top 12 of 2014, in no particular order.

With a list this short, you could read just one book a month and make it through the year happy with the quality of books you've read :)

1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie [general fiction, feminism]

"In America, racism exists but racists are all gone. Racists belong to the past. Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in the movies about the civil rights era. Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist. If you’re not a bloodsucking monster, then you can’t be called a racist. Somebody has to be able to say that racists are not monsters. They are people with loving families, regular folk who pay taxes. Somebody needs to get the job of deciding who is racist and who isn’t. Or maybe it’s time to just scrap the word “racist.” Find something new. Like Racial Disorder Syndrome. And we could have different categories for sufferers of this syndrome: mild, medium, and acute."

The story of a Nigerian-born woman coming to terms with what it means to be Black in America. Throughout the book, she writes a series of blog posts about how confusing it all is, often funny and poignant.

2. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood [science fiction, and I would argue for Horror]

"We were revisionists; what we revised was ourselves."

One of the more horrifying science fiction stories I've ever read, the story follows a young woman living in a monotheocratic dystopian society. 

3. Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism edited by Daisy Hernandez and Bushra Rehman [feminism, anthology]

"I took my B+ -- feminism can be graded, after all -- and abandoned feminist activities at Stanford."

This year we read a number of anthologies in the intersectional feminism book club this year, and this was my favorite. In it are discussions of identity, religion, abortion, class, femininity and machismo, being adopted into a transracial and transcultural family, and being an Arab in a country with prejudices and misconceptions about the Arab world.

4. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu [science fiction]

"I have traveled, chronogrammatically, out of the ordinary tense axes and into this place, into the subjunctive mode."

This book is very much in the vain of Douglas Adams-style cleverness and I immediately fell in love with it. This is a time travel story that uses grammar tenses to discuss points in time. My new favorite time travel book!

5. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot [non-fiction, science, investigative journalism]

“Henrietta’s were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.” 

This is one of the better books I've read in the past few years. It's written by a woman who ended up becoming close with the family of Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose genetic material was taken without her permission and has been in use in science and medical labs across the world since 1951. She was immediately erased and forgotten -- her genetic material being referred to only as HeLa. The story follows the heartbreaking reality of Henrietta Lacks and her family.

6. China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh [science fiction, general fiction]

"All of that work to make a little more money. But I will still be Zhang. I carry myself wherever I go, and it is myself I want to escape from. I hate myself. I hate this place. And I find it is very tiring to carry hate all the time. So I sit and listen to the night on the Arctic tundra, defeated before I start. And sick to death of all of it."

China Mountain Zhang reads much more like a general fiction novel set in a science fiction universe. The story follows Zhang, a man who was genetically altered to appear Han Chinese in a world where China is the super power and has control over what once was the United States. A lot of neat tech and beautiful story-telling. (Note: this book has quite a few problematic aspects. Trigger warnings for suicide, rape, and homophobia.)

7. The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates [non-fiction, auto-biographical, race, American culture, narrative]

"Who among us would integrate into a burning house?"

I picked up this book after devouring a bunch of Coates' writing in the Atlantic. The Beautiful Struggle is the story of his childhood and life as a young adult growing up in Baltimore with a father who worked with the Black Panthers and ran a publishing company from his basement to promote and disseminate the work of African writers and visionaries.

8. How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon [non-fiction, auto-biographical, race, American culture, narrative]

“Not so deep down, we all know that safety is an illusion, that only character melds us together. That’s why most of us do everything we can (healthy and unhealthy) to ward off that real feeling of standing alone so close to the edge of the world.” 

I came across Laymon's work through a blog post he published on his site and quickly fell in love with his writing. The book is a collection of letters to loved ones, self-reflection, and cultural critique. It's heartwrenching, eye-opening, and funny.

9. Nevada by Imogen Binnie [fiction, trans-feminism]

"She mumbles a no and turns away, still smiling because what else are you going to do, explain patriarchy to this fucking rando?"

Nevada follows the life of a trans* woman who watches as everything in her life crumbles. It's amazingly written; I don't think I've ever felt I was reading myself so much in a character. Highly recommend.

10. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano [feminism, trans-feminism, narrative]

"The constant threat of being ostracized, which is directed toward people who show even the slightest interest in marginalized cultures and perspectives, creates within the center an enforced ignorance regarding those at the margins."

Another one I read in the feminism book club. I've had friends champion this book and at the same time point out a list of problems with it. For the most part, I really enjoyed and learned a lot from this book. I loved the time spent on examining masculinity, which I wasn't expecting.

11. The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell [non-fiction, humor, history]

"Of course, this America does exist.

It's called Canada."

As someone who grew up in New England and had much of the history of colonial America through the Revolutionary War drilled into her, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I learned from her writing. Her style is casual, funny, and super informative. If you're into history, definitely pick up her stuff. (Sidenote: if you like comedic retellings of history, Viva la Revolution, which is about the French Revolution, may be up your alley.)

12. How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston [humor, American culture, race]

“As I've reflected back on both, I realize that my neighborhood was just like The Wire. We had the drug dealing, the police brutality, the murders. Well, it was /almost/ a perfect match. We had everything The Wire had except for universal critical acclaim and the undying love of white people who saw it.” 

This book was hilarious, sharp, and informative; so much so that I finished it over the course of one domestic flight and immediately passed it to a friend of mine to read so we could gush about it together. (Sidenote: I got a recommendation to read Some of My Best Friends Are Black from this book, which is problematic, but has great discussions of things like redlining, bussing, and social segregation.)

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