The girl in the waiting room means trouble…

When she walked into the hospital waiting room in Grand Rapids in Michigan State, she looked just amazing. You just can’t take your eyes off her slim figure emphasized by a pair of tight-fitting yoga trousers. It’s a lovely August day in 2013, you work at the hospital and you’re about to go home after your shift.

If your friends were with you, for sure they’d also be smitten by her. You’d exchange knowing glances which said: “Wow, she’s great…” and then you’d go and get a beer, feeling all the better for what you had seen that day. But your friends are not there, and it seems a shame to let the moment just pass by. So, without thinking it through, you take a photo with your mobile (but only of the “most important part” in the yoga trousers) and put the photo up on Facebook. Along with the pleasant enough comment: “Isn’t she pretty?”

Your friends agree of course and immediately the “likes” arrive. But, unfortunately, someone in hospital management also sees the photo. And the next day you all get the sack.

Privacy in Social Media

That’s something that really happened and, whatever you think of the hospital employee who so much appreciated the sight of a pretty woman, something similar happens everyday. Maybe ten times or 100 times in one evening in any club or bar. Someone comes in, and other people exchange meaningful glances, lean towards each other and whisper something to each other. And nobody loses their job for whispering like that. On the other hand, a worker on a building site who sees a pretty girl and, instead of winking his positive opinion to his colleagues, does a wolf-whistle and shouts “Oh you, fancy a quick one?” at the girl, could find himself in trouble if the girl complains to the site boss.

Natalia Hatalska recently wrote about the phenomenon which she called the “show-off” generation, young people who make a show in public of their career, money, opinions… Although we agree that such a phenomenon exists, are we sure that we understand it properly? It’s not as if showing off is something new — the parents of the “show-off” generation also showed off, and they too showed off in public. They made personal remarks while drinking beer or watching a football match. But these remarks were more in the “private domain” even if they were made in public.

So why have young people stopped thinking about what is private and what is not private and say silly things in places where everyone can hear (or read) these things, which can then lead to regrettable consequences? The answer may shock you. Let’s take a look at the “show-off” generation from an anthropological point of view.

If something is marked as “public”, this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s for “you”

Bear in mind that the behaviour under discussion hasn’t itself changed: the hospital worker in Grand Rapids wanted to share some information on the subject of a pretty girl with his friends, and this is exactly the same as when his parents used to share similar information in a bar in the past. The only thing which has changed is the place, the environment. We have moved the process of building relationships to the virtual world and we have started using virtual tools which are, it turns out, not well designed for this process.

In her book It’s complicated, which describes how young people deal with issues of privacy in the world of Social Media, Danah Boyd defines the basic difference between the “real” world and the virtual world. That is, as far as communication in public places is concerned.

  • In the “real world”, the default is private communication. We actually have to make an effort to move into the public zone by, for example, whistling at someone from a building site.
  • However, in the virtual world, the default is public communication. And we have to put in effort in order to keep something in the private domain.

In fact, the show-off generation does protect its privacy, but in ways which are different to what we are used to. But there is something which adults don’t seem to understand: the fact you have access to some information, this doesn’t necessarily mean that this information is intended for you. In the real world, this is something which we understand: eavesdropping on a someone’s conversation in a bar breaches a social norm, even though a bar is a public place. On the other hand, taking a look at a teenager’s blog (which is also in the public domain) is considered acceptable to an adult. It goes like this: “Mum why did you read my blog?” “As you put it on the Internet, you must want everyone to read it”. That’s right, isn’t it? But, in fact, that’s not right.

Social steganography

In order to communicate successfully, but avoid the situation in which the hospital worker in Grand Rapids found himself, you need some controls.

  • You can make clear your intentions by leaning towards your friend and saying something in a conspiratorial whisper — he will then know that this information should not be conveyed beyond a limited circle of people.
  • You can exert control over the medium you’re using — if you don’t want your conversation to be overheard in the tram, you can write an SMS message instead of ‘phoning someone.
  • Finally, you can change your environment, for example, by not making your phone call in the tram, but waiting and making it once back home in your own private space.

Unfortunately, transferring our previous understanding of privacy to the virtual world forces us to use tools which are not fit for that purpose and which take away our ability to exert control over privacy. What’s more, young people have another problem: their control over their privacy is often taken away by others who say they wish to protect those young people. So some parents check “chat” messages, some mums look over a teenager’s shoulders and some dads take a mobile phone away from a teenager. Really, what is a young person to do?

Such continuous control is, in effect, a form of opression. Stenography is the practice of leaving a (public) message in a way in which only those in the know can read it. It was used at the time of the first dictators, and is used with success by, for example, homeless people who put a sign on a house that the inhabitants willingly give out handouts, and young people use so-called social steganography — if they cannot hide messages themselves from prying eyes, they hide the meaning in the messages.

That’s why, for example, memes, are so very popular — to work out their meaning, you have to have a similar “cultural matrix” to the person sending them. But decoding memes is a subject for a separate article…

Today is tomorrow’s yesterday

Until recently, the tools available for virtual communication had one more important difference compared to tools for offline communication. The default state of a conversation in a bar or a tram is ephemeral, whereas communication on the Internet necessarily assumes an element of permanence. Sometimes that is what we want: we want to capture those fleeting memories, and it is much easier to do that with the help of a quick click to send an Instagram or by changing one’s status on Facebook than it is to spend ages writing entries in a diary or documenting our day by taking photos with a big camera (or by making films). But that same permanence means that, as described above, we lose control over the situation: the joke that we told a close friend in a bar is funny that evening and after we’ve had a drink, but the same joke is not at all funny when we see it again the next morning and we’ve got a hangover. And the problem is not that a joke like that “hangs around” on the Internet and so might be seen by people who we don’t want to see it. The problem is that it could also be seen by me — and the next morning, I see reality in a quite different way.

Danah Boyd describes two extreme ways which young people use to deal with the undesirable effects of such permanence. One teenage girl just deleted her status messages and comments from Facebook immediately after her friends had read them. She called this technique whitewalling, meaning starting with a blank slate. Another girl, who didn’t want her friends to tag her on photos when she was in school and was unable to react… deactivated her Facebook account when she wasn’t using it. She stopped appearing in search results, it was no longer possible to send her messages and she couldn’t be tagged on photos. In this way, she turned Facebook into a tool for communicating in real time.

Knowing that the present can be stored indefinitely in some archive has changed our habit. Natalia’s show-off generation is the effect of the fact that a “today is tomorrow’s yesterday”. But all those “yesterdays” should create one complete story, the story of you and your life, a story which others can take a look at and use to create an opinion of you. But these elements of information about you are surrounded by zillions of other elements of information which are not about you.

Even the best Instagram photo won’t get the notice it deserves if it cannot be seen amongst all the other photos. Once upon a time, the value of a photograph (or rather: the value of the memories associated with a photograph) was based on the rarity of photographs themselves. My generation keeps in boxes photos taken “on special occasions” — group photos taken once a year of infants or primary school, one photo from Christmas Eve, a few from the summer holidays… Back then, it would never have occurred to anyone to take a photograph: of their own finger nails just for the sake of it; or of something as commonplace as a mug of morning coffee…

For a while, we recreated “the style” of old photos by using filters to make everyday photos look older. But who would keep doing that…

Too much of anything destroys the value of that thing. That’s why, when young people meet today to celebrate something over a meal, they agree in advance that they won’t “take any Instagrams”. The impermanence of memories has the effect that we are starting to value memories more now than before.

And that is the reality in which Snapchat functions. It’s an app which makes it possible for you to send a picture to a friend, but you decide how long that picture will be shown for until it disappears forever from view. Of course, it is always possible to take a screenshot, but Snapchat will tell the sender that you’ve done that — that is just as much a breach of the rules of the game as recording conversations in a bar would be. When we’re in Snapchat, we’re looking at the pictures with uttermost attention, we really try “to take it all in”, whilst the timer in the corner reminds us that the picture will disappear forever in ten seconds from now (and counting down). Compare that with how bored we are when we look at the stream of new information on Facebook… And our Attention (with a capital “A”) is one of the most important values when it comes to social media…

So the next time that you look at a teenager’s profile on Facebook, think carefully about what isn’t there…