Though to be blunt I don’t really believe either article brought anything earth-shattering to the table this week, I at least enjoyed Vaidhyanathan’s piece on “The Googlization of Us.” (Castells’ essay, somewhat oddly written and with the most head-scratching references to date, reminded me more of a tautological text better suited for one of our undergraduate courses.) Vaidhyanathan’s look at Google’s strategic deployment of default choices and the enumeration of five basic privacy interface classifications made for interesting reading, though of course I do need to take one for my team and raise issue with his casual (and in this case quite literal) defamation of reality television as demonstrating “a positive relationship between the number of cameras and observers pointed at a subject and their willingness to act strangely and relinquish all pretensions of dignity” (595). While the last decade has been kind to my fair reality television’s seemingly eternal quest to earn a seat at the table of ‘legitimate’ media scholarship, we don’t need to look any farther than the audience at Dr. Patrice Petro’s talk last Tuesday (unquestionably loaded with academic all-stars) and their titters of laughter as The Bachelor and other reality shows were name-checked during the discussion. I concede that reality television has and continues to be home to ‘ordinary’ citizens behaving extraordinarily and at times almost certainly with an eye for the camera, but its positioning as a concrete example of Vaidhyanathan’s larger point here seems to me highly unfair.
Getting more to the point of the ‘cryptopticon,’ I was reminded of a New York Times article from a year ago about Justine Sacco, a communications director who offhandedly tweeted a stupid joke about Africa and AIDS to her 170 followers and then found herself the top worldwide trend on the site (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html?_r=0). The article, which I highly recommend, goes on to document other people who have becomes targets of public outrage over some controversial post, and describes in detail how they’ve lost their jobs and had their social lives destroyed. Most interesting though is the connection author Jon Ronson draws with America’s history of public shaming in the 18th and 19th centuries, writing that it thankfully fell out of favor because “well-meaning people, in a crowd, often take punishment too far.”
These cases interest me because I think they get to the root of what’s problematic about social media and internet privacy; while the role of institutions like Google and explicitly stated privacy policies are important, in my view the malice of the anonymous masses and their cruel manipulation of what becomes made public is far more sinister than the dispassionate commercial interests of Internet authorities. Whether or not I agree that Google has too much power, I hate the notion that information and opinions will of course be immediately attacked if made public has sadly become an unchallenged given.
pictured: me after most grad seminars