Media Influencer

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The creepiness factor

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Yesterday at one of my client workshops I was explaining the benefits of Twitter – I use the term ’synchronicity maximised’ to describe the ad hoc organisation of encounters, connectivity and sharing that makes Twitter so useful and addictive. I mentioned an example of twittering my location – let’s say I am in New York having brunch with a friend and I let the ‘world’ know about it. One of the attendees remarked how creepy this seemed to her. And here we have the ‘creepiness factor’ – which usually refers to someone not necessarily violating our privacy legally but to the ability of others to gather our public details (as private data would be a privacy violation), piece together data and information about us that allow them to act in ways we don’t expect. It is the realisation that someone knows so much about us by deliberately gathering information and using to behave in a way that implies familiarity. It feel like a violation of autonomy and privacy, even though existence of either is a delusion in our mind.

There is a difference between me ‘broadcasting’ on Twitter that I am having brunch with a friend plus the exact location, and learning the hard way that someone is ’scraping’ or gleaning such information from places that I, probably very foolishly, consider private or even semi-private, such as Facebook. It comes down to me knowing what happens to my data. The creepiness comes from realising that someone is gathering and piecing together information about me for purposes that don’t directly involve me and/or are not in my interest. Twittering my location is not a problem if I am doing it with awareness of my network and audience.

Sometimes it seem that the vision of web of document turning into web of people has gone the other way around. It is turning the web of people into the web of information about those people without their ability to do much about it.

And of course, all this contributes to all the talk about privacy. And the view that the web is eroding it and that the younger generation don’t appreciate or value it or give it away and, and, and… I have a different view. I am a privacy freak myself and value my privacy highly although I have considerable online presence. That is because privacy is behaviour according to your own preferences – it’s a policy, not a system.

Below is my response to an overly legal approach to privacy on the project VRM mail list thread, where privacy was seen as a legal agreement and to be guaranteed by a contract. Here is what I said:

Yes, the whole legal thing is not addressing or even originating from the way people interact. Bemoaning the fact and trying to build systems, processes or tools that force people to ‘behave in their best interest’ or to ‘protect their privacy’ is not going to work and/or deal with the problem.

Privacy is a policy, not a system. ToS is a creature of systems, platforms and silos not of the individual/user/customer.

I, as an autonomous individual, am the best judge of my privacy requirements. When I talk to my friends, I know what to tell them and what not to share – and if I mess up, I suffer the consequences and learn not to gossip with those who betray confidences.

In a larger context, beyond my immediate social circles and when money or reputation or other value is at stake, in order to manage my privacy I need to understand the context and consequences of information I share or other have about me. But if my privacy is not up to me to manage, there can be no reasons or demand for such knowledge to be available or for me to find out easily. Hence, many people have no idea about how their data is used and abused. So that will is part of the challenge in which the web has helped enormously – it is now possible for a dedicated or persistent person to find out what’s going on most of time.

But there is little they can do to act on that knowledge – and I have said this elsewhere many times before – our privacy options are rather binary. Either you participate in transactions, exchanges, communities, etc and you give up some of your privacy or you don’t. However unacceptable I find the former, the latter is not the way to live either.

The best ‘privacy settings’ are in my head, but I need ways/tools that help me to ‘execute’ my privacy policy. And as it’s been pointed out these are not necessarily of the legal world. It helps not to assume it and start building tools that help individuals manage their data and help them to determine their privacy behaviour themselves.

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One Response to “The creepiness factor”


  1. B.L Ochman
    on Dec 22nd, 2008
    @ 18:32 pm

    My privacy policy: Online, I never publicly say where I will be, and rarely say where I am. I often say to my network of friends and acquaintenances on Twitter and elsewhere online, where I have been. That satisfies my own need for privacy and decreases the “creepiness factor” for me.

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