Saturday, 31 July 2010

Talking is cheap, but comment is free

The publication of however many bejillion Facebook users' data recently has prompted the usual panic about online security, with people in the know tutting and shouting "I told you so" at anyone who happens to walk past, and people not in the know desparately trying to figure out how any of this could have happened. I get the impression though that we tend to assume that things on the internet are more private than they actually are. The internet is brilliant for bringing us into contact with people who think like we do, dress like we do, enjoy the same films and music and books that we do, but who may well live in completely different parts of the world. Why then is it so surprising when we also encounter people from closer to home who may well completely disagree with us? And do we have the right to mind?

A Friend of mine (who reads this blog, hello) recently had a problem on Facebook, when one of their friends started trolling on my Friend's status. Friend is a committed feminist, who got angry at Troll making jokes about Doctor Who spanking his assistant. Troll either didn't realise they were being offensive, or were enjoying causing the upset. Friend made an excellent stab at teaching Troll manners, but among other things said, "This is *my* facebook status, not a public domain" [emphasis theirs]. How true is that though? Troll has at some point been accepted as a friend by Friend, giving them the capacity to comment on anything Friend posts in their status. Doesn't the expressing of an opinion by Friend in that way therefore provide an opportunity for, if not prompt or even invite Troll to pass judgement on it by commenting? Should Troll have refrained from doing so knowing it would upset Friend, or should we be talking about Troll's right to free speech? Should Facebook's settings be flexible enough that it controls who is able to comment on things, as well as whether or not they can see them?

A similar thing happened to a LiveJournal post about comedy. Poster marked the post as both triggering on a range of issues and suitable for 18s and over only, and went on to use examples to illustrate what they considered to be appropriate and inappropriate humour. Someone commented on the post that they enjoyed Roy "Chubby" Brown's humour (who Poster didn't mention), and Poster's Partner responded by saying that the Commenter was, "not welcome here". Given that the post wasn't made as part of a forum or ongoing discussion it's quite difficult to view the online community which surrounds the post, and although the general mood of the comments would agree with Partner can Commenter really be labelled unwelcome just by virtue of being in disagreement with other members of the community? Does Poster's decision not to moderate this comment not imply that anyone is welcome to throw in their $0.02?

I spotted a third example of this on My Fault, I'm Female, a blog dedicated to publishing examples of sexism in the modern world (and well worth a read in my opinion). Here the community targetted is made explicit by the introductory comments in the side bar on the right, but again there seems to be little moderation of comments. This leads to frequent arguments about whether certain posts actually constitute sexism at all, and much consequent defense of the people who have submitted the stories. One such defense runs as follows;

This is a safe space for women....We’re allowed to own our anger, and this is one site set up to do just that....This is OUR place for discussion, OUR safe space.
But how can it be a safe space for women when anyone is allowed to comment? Indeed, in an online community how could such a safe space be created, without requiring gender checks at the point of entry? Unlike my first example this very definitely is a public domain, though the lack of welcome to certain types of comment is much clearer here than in the second. But since part of the mission of the blog is "to highlight what is still an entrenched problem", wouldn't excluding the very people who are posting these comments restrict the success of what is a key aim of the authors? It is worth pointing out that the introductory text does state that it intends to be non-judgmental, which clearly these comments are not.

So are we back to the issue of causing offence being the deciding feature? Should we be protecting vulnerable people from hearing things which wrongly undermine them? Or should we be welcoming the opportunity to hear views which jar with ours, whether to give us a chance to reassess our own worldview or to set someone else straight about theirs?

It is with some trepidation that I welcome comments....


  1. I could be lazy and just post this:

    But I'd also like to add that while the online world looks, at times, pretty alien, it actually runs on the same kind of rules as offline, in that it's up to us to "police" spaces that we carve out for discussion.

    If you turn up to a friendly gathering, anywhere, not just online, and start being a jerk to other people there, then the organisers of that gathering will toss you out on your ear.
    And it is a question of being a jerk. Absolutely. I've been to a *lot* of feminist spaces, and I don't think I've seen a single one that will stifle comment just for disagreeing. Being an asshole, yes, but not just for expressing an alternative opinion. The definitions of "asshole" may vary, but most places seem to give posters the benefit of the doubt, at least at first.

    On a more personal note, when it comes to personal blogs, facebook, etc, when it is very definitely *your* personal space, I think you have the right to be as draconian as you like. (Full disclosure at this point - I am "friend", and am quite happy to be identified as such. Hi!)
    A lot of people have the opinion that the internet is some kind of free space where anyone can say and do anything. It's not. And I have as much right to walk away from a fight, or a toxic situation on the internet as I do in real life. If someone's bringing that fight to you, on your facebook or otherwise, then you don't get that option any more. You can't walk away and ignore it - and that can be really damaging, for whatever reason. Worst case scenario - imagine a rape survivor having rape-jokes posted on her wall. Sometimes the only option is to delete those posts, (and perhaps de-friend the idiot who posted them) and I think we need to respect someone's decision to do that. :)

  2. What this made me think about was an article I read a while back arguing that the internet is less likely to open up your mind to new ideas, but rather provide further information about the things that you are already interested in. As in, I am more likely to search for feminist theology and baking sites, that to go to unless I am specifically looking for a fight. It also argued that the internet provides with the ability to say things that hold fewer social consequences. Could you really get away with ringing your neighbour's doorbell, telling them their opinion is invalid, and then slamming their own door in their face??!

    I agree that the internet is not some kind of free space. I'm not sure about whether there are truly 'personal' social spaces (whether on the internet or in life), but there is certainly a power dynamic to interactions that determines the boundaries of that relationship/conversation. The difficulty with the internet is trying to determine how to share that power - 'share' not denoting equality in this case.

    As an aside, I find it so much harder to put across my views on the internet - I crave the full context of a material-social interaction, partly because it is so much easier to convey humour in that setting.

    Do you think you could have your mind changed by an interaction on facebook or a blog? Would it be more or less likely to be changed in a face-to-face conversation?

  3. Ses, surely as apocalypse pointed out the internet really doesn't operate along the same rules as the real world because of the lack of face-to-face contact. If you threw a party you would know who was there, even if they weren't taking part of the conversation, and you would invite people based on a human point of contact (yourself) rather than a common interest. I would argue that on the internet people choose which parties to go to - if I want to chat to people about my favourite music I can, and if I want to be obnoxious at people who like Wagner I can find a website to do that too.

    Is it fair to say that on the internet the interests bring the people, while in real life it's be other way round?

  4. The "publication of however many bejillion Facebook users' data" story has been hyped rather. The only data published is that which the Facebook users in question had allowed to be visible to "Everyone". The only novel thing about this is that someone had collated that information into a single database.

    Now, I understand there's a bit more to it than that...

    o Are Facebook's privacy settings too complicated to understand, thus leading people to make public more than they may have intended? Not since the recent simplification, I don't think. They seem pretty comprehensible to me, and the "Preview my Profile" button works very well.

    o Are Facebook's default settings too open, again leading to inadvertent publication of information? Again, I was content with them, though I did think twice about leaving "My status, photos, and posts" visible to "Everyone". Others may very legitimately have different preferences, though.

    o Does the very fact of collating the (already public) information into a single database turn something into a violation of privacy when it wouldn't have been otherwise? I'm not too sure about this one. Certainly it might make it practical to search for people meeting certain criteria (e.g. to spam them), but then Google already does a pretty good job of that. It's certainly difficult to imagine ways to prevent it from happening.

    Realistically, irrespective of the intentions of Facebook (or anyone else you might choose to entrust with personal information), you need to be prepared for it to become public. It only takes an accidental virus infestation of a computer for anything on it potentially to leak. If you really care about something not becoming public, don't put it on the internet at all.

    Of course, you can't prevent someone else from posting that embarrassing photo. To some extent we just have to get used to not having any guarantee of privacy any more. Maybe, just maybe, that's a good thing. Privacy is often a nice word for "covering up misdemeanours".