Model View Culture: Social Networking as Peer Surveillance

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?

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