Thursday, May 20, 2010

"Gratuitous" publication and self-broadcast: risk and benefits

It’s interesting, and perhaps disturbing, to walk the track of logical inferences from the debate over Facebook and other social media privacy controls.

Almost certainly, Mark Zuckerberg and his company will go along with the public desire for a “social media users bill of rights” and allow users to have completely non-public (away from search engines and marketing) profiles. That follows the “disapora” model recently proposed.  (Note: see addendum at end of May 17 posting for story about Facebook fix made May 20.)

Of course, many questions arise. Business models require that companies be able to find individuals and present themselves online to individuals. Once a “private Internet presence” becomes accepted as normative, questions arise as to who should have the “right” to broadcast himself. And we also realize that many people, especially those who came of age (at least psychologically) in the age of media like the idea of being in the limelight, even if there is little obvious payback.

Another word of caution goes with this idea of non-public profiles. Presumably, social media users should have the right to make(all of) their materials available only to “friends”, but that has little practical impact if the media user has 1000 “friends” most of whom he or she does not “know” personally. “Bad information” seems to spread quickly among friends lists (even without the help of search engines), as several serious incidents reported in the media point out. If we think back, say, to the 1980s as to how we networked and go back to that model, we quickly wonder what social media really would be for. The 80s weren’t that bad.

What I did, of course, starting around 1997, was a bit different. I self-published: first in book form, tehn in flat websites, and finally blogs. I actually find that this “older” mode of media use works, and attracts the right kind of people, even if my “relationships” with many of them are intermittent – they still have real substance. But my real purpose, as I’ve explained before, was to help people (including “professional” politicians and media) connect the dots, and to “keep them honest”.

One can ask, by what right did I appoint myself to do that? Why not, say, use only books and accept the amount of publicity that physical book sales could generate? Instead, just like newspapers, I “gave a lot away” by eventually posting all my content on the Web and letting people search for it. And I indeed did have a “disproportionate” impact on the debate (especially, probably, on gays in the military and later on Internet censorship with the COPA trial).

For most of my adult life, I was indeed responsible mainly only for myself, and worked as an “individual contributor” and could avoid many of the conflicts that could come from self-broadcast over political controversies. As I’ve explained before, I was acutely concerned over the possibility of conflict of interest, particularly, in my case in the 1990s, over the military issue.

Here we come to that basic tension, between our roles in society as individuals, and as members of social units, both in the family and often in community and business, where we must take responsibility for others, sometimes being able to protect others. We cannot always avoid this, even when we try. For example, the growing eldercare problem is highlighting the fact that procreation isn’t the only way many of us wind up with family responsibility where others depend on us “socially.” This can take us down an existential path where remaining alone (and childless) is actually penalized (by forcing the “standing alone” person to accept, with reservation and without consent, purposes dictated by the needs of others anyway), and contribute to the motive for the “upward affiliation” that I’ve discussed before.

Sometimes social or self-published media can create distractions or disruptions in these areas, partly because some people make a lot of “associations.” A blogger might address a particularly controversial topic (in open, searchable space) that somehow affects a workplace subordinate, and because of some context the subordinate might believe that merely addressing the topic connotes hostility. Sometimes these beliefs occur because of the way social orders used to work in the past, where people give a lot of emphasis on “family honor” or the welfare of the group. Extreme extensions of this concept help explain the “snitching” issue in some destructive social hierarchies, such as gangs.

All of this brings up the question of “purpose” of self-publishing and social media use. It is apparent that in the modern world many people feel that use of “free entry” media makes them “feel important” even when the monetary remuneration is small or non-existent. But this circumstance could lead to the idea that such self-promotion amounts to “gratuitous publication” (almost a psychological form of spam, and related to the legal concept of "implicit content") that adds to unpredictable or unbounded risk but provides little actual benefit. This observation could occur in either a social networking (even a Diaspora model when there are many “friends”) or blogging or more conventional self-publishing environment.

One could say that the “risk” associated with giving individuals “power” that they didn’t enjoy before is simply an inevitable byproduct of innovation. Compare it to the automobile! Security-related incidents connected to Internet or social media use make big headlines and sometimes ensnare “innocent bystanders” such as other family members (especially associated with some teen use). So far, it seems as though there may have occurred more incidents related to “hostile friends” on social media sites or to careless use of sales-listing sites (like Craigslist) than related to finding “search engine celebrities”. It’s important to remember that there are a couple hundred million Internet users in the country, and probably hundreds of billions of Internet postings every year, so the rate of loss (from an insurance perspective) from “amateur” activity is very low, even if the incidents reported by the media are sensational and disturbing. The overwhelming majority of users of Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, Blogger and Wordpress have positive experiences with few problems; but just as with driving a car you have to know what you’re doing.

I suppose filmmaker James Horner has a point when in his movie "Avatar" he proposes that on some planet within 50 or so light years a civilization comparable to ours has a "biological Internet" where everyone's thought are made public through biological (maybe telepathic -- read wireless) connections.

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