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MySpace is okay, but don’t post it at the mall

David Weinberger relates a story from his recent New Hampshire visit to speak at the Christa McAuliffe Technology Conference:

One teacher said that a parent printed out his daughter’s MySpace page and told her he was going to post it at the mall. When the daughter objected, mortified, the parent explained that MySpace is as public as the mall.

I love this.  Online identity *is* public.

In fact, it’s *more* public, because it’s persistent and searchable.

Kudos to Dad.

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  1. jkd | November 30, 2006 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    It’s all about context. People who are online can find this young woman accidentally, not knowing who she is – or they can find her intentionally, already knowing who she is. But posting a physical copy at the mall is different -it’s actually creating a new context for access to that information. The dad here is wrong – MySpace is not as public as the mall: it’s in some ways more public but in a very different way. Her MySpace profile is persistent and searchable but mostly for those who already know what they’re looking for; by contrast, a MySpace profile posted in the mall is a blinking red light, sure to draw far more attention.

    I have to say I find this father’s actions to be pretty grotesque and sadistic – he might want to “teach her a lesson” but he could’ve done this by just telling his daughter that MySpace, in his view “is as public as the mall,” not by taking an action designed to mortify and harm her.

    To carry the analogy further: would he have been okay with his daughter scraping his search and browsing history from their home computer and posting it in the break room at his office? No? Then he doesn’t really understand what he’s doing or saying here, and instead is just exercising some bad old-fashioned parental power over a child.

    This gets right back to my emerging central thought about the Internet making personal information widely and easily accessible: just because you can find and disseminate this information doesn’t mean you ought to do so. The dad here oughtn’t’ve done this, and was a cruel jerk for doing so.

  2. Terrell Russell | November 30, 2006 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    But Jacob, he didn’t actually post it. He just printed it out to make a point.

    And as for your analogy of his private search and browsing history? That’s not even defensible as the same thing. There’s no pretense that that information is or would ever be public. MySpace – comes with that pretense (youthful ignorance is not a defense here).

    I’m surprised you see these as that different. It’s an awareness issue and a good parenting move. The daughter will no doubt view what she’s putting online in a different light since this ‘incident’.

    That’s why Dad gets kudos. It’s about awareness and education.

  3. jkd | November 30, 2006 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    “But Jacob, he didn’t actually post it. He just printed it out to make a point.”

    Okay. I misread this. If he had, I would stand by my assessment. But not actually posting it – it does go to “making a point” rather than “needlessly cruel.”

    “And as for your analogy of his private search and browsing history? That’s not even defensible as the same thing.”

    I disagree. These are comparable because both actions rip something out of a context in which it’s accessible and traceable to a specific identity – anyone who knows his daughter’s name in the first, anyone who has access to the computer in the second – and posting it with identity specifically assigned in a totally different context.

    Soon, this’ll probably be a moot point – all identities and representations will be easily traceable to a single identity – but we’re not there yet.

  4. Fred | December 1, 2006 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    To pile on a little criticism, I sort of feel the distinction you draw, Terrell, is way too black and white…it is sort of a little Bill O’Reillyish.

    I don’t disagree that parents should help their kids understand the uniqueness of public i digital information, that is a good thing. But I feel the method you celebrate is somewhat troubling.

    You send emails. Implicit in a social contract is the fact, most of the time, that these emails will not be posted to the web, that things will remain private. The only process governing your assumption are social norms. Would a parent say “you shouldn’t email because there is a chance that soemone will post your message to a blog!”

    The point I am trying to make is that social processes govern our relationship with informtion. One of the social expectations of SNS profiles is that they are for friends. People build and tune their SNS profiles for their target audience – not for the web. Although their SNS profile is public (most times not entirely public, but inside a service), it is not meant for the public. When the parent confronts the child with this “reality”, it is incongruous with their expectations. It makes as much sense as your parent telling you not to email because an email can be posted online.

    Why is it incongrouous? Because social motives inform behavior – most of the time these kids spend surfing their friends profiles, not random people. And they certainly dont use SNS in the dystopian manner the parents assume.

    So what is wrong with the parent’s example? It is like he is saying “Don’t drive because you might die” or something like that. These examples are incongrous with reality. Posting a Myspace in the mall is incongrous with reality because all of the people who would see it in the mall would not see it online. It is a completely different context and inappropriate.

    The parent chose to use the “shock and awe” method on their child because they don’t understand the granularity of the situation. Yes, having a Myspace may make you “searchable” (though not in a traditional sense, as Myspace users generally take highly pseudononymous identities), but it isn’t a public identity. It is not designed for the public, it is designed for the private audience of friends. So dad gets to make his point and scare his child. Nothing new there. But I won’t celebrate it.

  5. Terrell Russell | December 1, 2006 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    No no no.

    “You send emails. Implicit in a social contract is the fact, most of the time, that these emails will not be posted to the web, that things will remain private. The only process governing your assumption are social norms. Would a parent say ‘you shouldn’t email because there is a chance that soemone will post your message to a blog!'”

    I send emails. To someone. They get it. They decide whether to post it in a public place (with or without my permission). If it gets posted without my permission, then they have violated the social norm.

    The difference between me sending an email and having it posted by the recipient and having a myspace page and a third party (KudosDad) posting it in a “completely different context” is great. One was actually a two-party communication channel (much more arguably ‘private’ and cognitively not public). The other has a directed ‘social motive’ but is not at all cognitively private.

    They’re not the same.

    These kids’ ‘social motive’ you speak of is not reality-based and needs to be better fused with facts. Dad is protecting the child here – not misunderstanding the granularity.

    Information on a MySpace page is not private. There is no reason to think the kids think it is (they’ll say as much when you ask them).

    My point is that they should then make the not-so-large logical leap that posting it in ‘real public’ is not so different.

  6. John Bachir | December 1, 2006 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    I think you both have important points. Maybe we should structure things a bit in order to gain control of this problem space. Here’s a first stab…

    When comparing the media and how they affect the communicators and their messages, we can consider the intentions and motivations of:

    • the subject (daughter)
    • the distributor/forum (myspace, father, daughter)
    • the medium (SNS profile, paper on wall)

    Orthogonal to this discussion is that of the Worst Case Scenario. When considering the Worst Case Scenario in any problem space, one must consider:

    • the risk (likelihood) of failure
    • the cost of failure

    Separately, for each type of failure. Types of failure might include:

    • several types of embarrassment, for each permutation of environment, type of information disclosed, audience (the motivations and assumptions of whom change depending on the media), and other factors
    • physical harm, by, say, a child predator
    • (from the point of view of the father) sexual attention of any kind, or certain kinds, either physical or within the SNS channels

    Even if we have thoroughly compared the risk and cost of each failure between media, we STILL must also compare the other benefits of the media. For example, for certain distances, it’s always safer to fly instead of drive, but we sometimes still drive, either for monetary cost, the convenience of having a car at the destination, wanting to move large objects, etc.

    Additionally, there is the archive issue — how the nature of certain information changes over time. As the information stays the same, the audience changes drastically. Here we can all agree that it would be safer for the father to post in the mall pictures of his daughter naked freebasing lysol, than for her to post any information at all on the web. Indeed, his overlooking of this factor perhaps displays a fundamental phenomenon in the online-identity problem– just when we were getting used to collapsed space (since the telegraph), we are faced with rapidly collapsing time (from archived media).

  7. John Bachir | December 1, 2006 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    I actually forgot to mention email in my comment, but that is a third medium that can be compared using the same structure.

  8. Fred | December 2, 2006 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    I’m not saying that email and SNS are the same – I am pointing out that our uses and privacy expectations are socially constructed. Why do people not post emails they recieve to the web? Where is the big document that everyone follws that says to “not do that.” There isn’t one – we just one day decided that was how we were going to behave, and we’ve done it. Social context informs everything we do.

    I don’t see how you can say that social motives informing use of SNS is not reality based. What is the logical alternative? Of course social motives inform our use of social technology. And of course people spend more time on their friend’s profiles than strangers profiles. There’s lots of math to that, it is called power laws. And even moreso, it just makes sense. We don’t call random people on our phones, we call our friends and family.

    Of course the information on a Myspace page isn’t “private”. I don’t think that was ever the issue. However, I still feel you are being overly reductionist here. Since we use pseudonyms and coded identities, we are not all as findable as you think. All humans are not equally gifted with information-seeking skills, so we actually aren’t all as findable as you may assume. So public != findable. There is a continuum of findability here, and I think you’ll agree to that.

    In that sense, young people control their contexts. If they want to their information to be found by x population, they will orient their profiles accordingly. If they don’t want to be found by others, they do the same. The parent is crossing contexts without the child’s approval, which is the real problem here. In reality, we don’t have “finding squads” that track all of us. It isn’t that simple. We control our contexts, some better than others, but we do it. The kid doesn’t want his/her profile posted in the mall because they control their context.

    The parent has made their point, but they could have easily said “don’t pick your nose because you never know when someone is looking in the window.” Sure I guess you can’t argue with either as being possible, but that doesn’t mean they are accurate.

  9. Terrell Russell | December 2, 2006 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    But it’s so much *not* about the recipient posting the email, Fred. That’s not the corollary.

    It’s about a third party posting the email. Dad is a third party in the MySpace ‘transaction’. And so are the people at the mall, by extension. The messages on the MySpace page were not oriented towards Dad. He was not part of the original contextualization. He was not the intended audience – and yet he has the ability to share the message ‘out of band’. Social norm or not – it’s true.

    Usually, with email, this is not an issue. Usually, we’re fairly certain that no third parties are reading our email – only the recipient is. And there are ‘social motives’ that keep that recipient in line – just like you said – we tend not to alienate our friends by posting ‘private’ messages to unintended audiences.

    With MySpace, ‘others’ can see these messages. These ‘others’ are not the intended recipient, the directed audience. And yet, they can still copy/repost the content – just like the intended audiences. Out of context. If they want to. And the ‘social motives’ for behavior as a third party are significantly less defined I think. Our privacy laws match this understanding as well. Things we do in the privacy of our homes are protected from some third party observation and scrutiny. Things we do in the public street – no matter how many people are watching or are interested – are *not* protected from observation and scrutiny.

    Yes, Dad did something that was seen as outside of the social norm – but the fact that he had access and opportunity in the first place (just like any other person who sees that page) means that the daughter is using an unrealistic model of the information space she’s messaging within. The Dad has been a correcting force – by injecting new insight/appreciation (reality) into the conversation. He is bettering his daughter’s model of the world by informing her of more contingencies.

    Her mortification is well-placed. And she’ll be more aware because of it.

    And hi JJB!