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With Friends Like These
The social media snowball continues to gather momentum. Within the last two years, Facebook has acquired photo sharing capabilities, facial recognition software, speech translation apps, mobile instant messaging, and (most recently) a virtual reality interface. Wherever you go, people are checking in on Foursquare, tagging friends on Instagram, taking Snapchats, or tweeting their thoughts.
As these companies extract more and more user behavioral data, it’s not inconceivable that one day in an ultra-social future, your friends will receive constant updates on your daily activities, hobbies, interests, and locations - whether you want them to or not. Developers and website providers insist on social sharing, and the omniscience of the user base grows. Privacy is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. You are on the grid.
The backlash has already started.
There’s lots of talk about Cloak, one of the world’s first “anti-social” networks. The app connects with networks like Foursquare and Instagram and plots where your contacts are based on their last tags and check-ins. You can flag people like your ex-girlfriend or your annoying neighbor, and Cloak will alert you when they’re nearby so you can make a quick escape. It’s a social sonar made for avoiding people. The interface is designed with dark humor: you chart a course around the tiny heads of your “friends” on a map.
Derek Markham over at the Treehugger blog makes a good point: “In the light of our habit of oversharing, and of connecting to people on social media that we wouldn't otherwise hang out with, some part of this antisocial app makes sense to me, because we don't always want to connect in real life with everyone in our social network. However, it really does beg the question of why we want to connect with others in the digital world, while wishing we could avoid them in the physical world.”
Cloak isn’t the only app that uses social media to un-network. The recently-released Splithelps users avoid unwanted encounters by notifying you when flagged contacts join events that you’re attending. For the hardcore misanthropes, there’s also Hell Is Other People, which uses Foursquare data to generate “safe zones” where you won’t have to interact with others. You might be even safer if you never left home.
In the late 18th century, English philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham set out to create the perfect prison. While visiting his brother in modern-day Belarus, Bentham noticed that Russian jails were overcrowded, understaffed, and extremely costly. So he began working on a new method of incarceration, a building that would need no watchmen - effectively leaving the watching to the watched.
Bentham called his institutional design the “Panopticon” (Greek for “total vision”) and conceived of it as a complex where inmates wouldn’t be able to tell whether or not they were being observed. His floor plans depict a circular building with a hub in the center, where the guards could view the entire prison. Although most prison designs have included surveillance, the essential elements of Bentham's design were not only that the wardens should be able to view the prisoners at all times (including times when they were in their cells), but also that the prisoners should be unable to see the custodians, and so could never be sure whether they were under surveillance or not.
So the real jail lies within the inmates’ heads. The Panopticon creates a consciousness of permanent visibility as a form of power, where no bars, chains, and heavy locks are necessary. The threat of constant observation is enough to keep any man on his best behavior.
If this eerie concept sounds familiar, it’s because we are turning it into a reality. We’re feeding data about our behavioral patterns to the entire world. Companies like Google and Facebook obsess over predicting your every move - and they’re getting closer to figuring it out. And with the inevitable advent of small, wearable cameras recording our life (see: Google Glass), everything we do will be captured and transmitted.
Like it or not, surveillance is now always present. We have learned to love our chains.
Constant visibility affects businesses, too. You may have heard that one negative review negates 10 positive ones, and now it’s easier than ever to read the thoughts of your customers. Reputation management is among the hottest topics at digital marketing conventions. How do you handle a dissatisfied customer? How do you mitigate the damage done to your reputation via social media? We may be on the precipice of an era of constant visibility, but there are weapons we can use. Follow us to learn about them.