January 10, 2016

On privacy and choosing to overshare online


Public social networks know more about us than our confidential doctor’s forms probably do. Our date of birth, our phone numbers, our last geographical movements, our gossipy private messages and the string of embarrassing questions we last Googled. If we were to peak into the apps of someone’s unlocked iPhone, we could access all the most private data that historically would be kept in a bolted safe.

Social networks are constantly mining for information. Facebook doesn’t ask for your date of birth just for your benefit so you can receive lovely birthday messages, it’s a major clue in knowing what adverts to target towards at you. Right now I’m inundated with engagement ring suggestions and pregnancy test kits even though I’m ready for neither. But they know I’m of that sort of age and in a relationship and that I’m attending heaps of weddings from my photo uploads. Social network databases and perfect strangers can know so much about us and yet: we’d be pretty angry (and scared) if strangers started turning up at our door uninvited because they’d managed to work out where we live, wouldn’t we?

Yes, in a way, when it comes to privacy, you could say we are all “asking for it”. We’re living in the Information Age.

An average Internet user gives away more than they think they do every single day. According to PewInternet, 76% of teens share the name of the school they attend on their Facebook profile, 64% of teens with Twitter accounts say that their tweets are public and 16% automatically share their location every time they post. Equally you can never be prepared for when you may accidentally go viral. Last October an American man posted on Facebook a long list of random observations that he loved about England (such as “they eat with their forks upside down”) and people found it so comical it got shared 90,000 times until it got taken down.

Maybe it is worrying that we share so much. Angela Clarke’s recent crime novel Follow Me has a plot line that echoes the dangers of these hyperconnected digital world we live in; it communicates the scary results of posting so much information. Anyone, really, could be tracked down if they use location based apps that have the tracking turned on. Yes it’s a thriller fiction, but it also touches on a scary reality.

It’s a fairly new experience that we can peer into a Traditional Celebrity’s lives via their Instagram accounts. We are getting more of the fly-on-the-wall experience than we ever did before. We used to see the same celebrities doing the same poses at parties in tabloids, now we can see a more real side on social media: with their kids, with their friends, dancing, celebrating, laughing, cooking. It’s still fairly new that we can see the selfies and food choices of our favourite celebrity – from Oprah, to Victoria Beckham, to Reese Witherspoon.

Now we have Instagram, is there any need for the hollow long-lens paparazzi shot?

You only have to watch that scene in the documentary Amy where a camera crew follows her to St Lucia to be reminded that being hounded when you desperately need a chance to get better in private can be severely damaging.

We are used to the media infiltrating the private lives of Traditional Celebrities. Not that it’s OK – but it has been normalised. In 2015, for example, we saw both Justin Bieber’s AND Lenny Kravitz’ nether regions without them consenting to it. We still see long lens bikini shots of famous women with “imperfections” circled in red pen. We see Harry Styles mobbed at airports in a way that would give most people a panic attack. We saw a grainy helicopter birds-eye view of Jennifer Aniston’s post-wedding private garden party. 4chan leaked J-Law’s naked photos. The public often feeling like these celebrities owe it to the world to show every nook and cranny of their life. The attitude of “they don’t deserve any privacy” is unfair. They do a job – albeit a very well-paid job – but really, deep down, we all know they are meant to have some time off.

Emma Watson, Iggy Azalea, Adele are just a handful of celebrities that have been quoted in the past that they “never intended to be famous.”

So what about the Internet Celebrities who amassed millions in the space of a few short years, genuinely by accident?

Like the fact that Zoella has nearly 10 million online subscribers – and that’s just on YouTube. A selfie is the new autograph and teens are desperate for proof that they’d met a famous Internet star. “Have people confused you with a petting zoo?” one other YouTuber tweeted Zoe when people started turning up at their doors. No other Traditional Celebrity would allow people to group outside their house like tourists – so why should they? Maybe that’s because they all live on a privately owned road in Hollywood. But Zoe, originally from the quiet countryside and a sufferer of anxiety, genuinely wants a quiet life. It’s a catch 22: her normality is her charm. It’s her normality that accrues the fans. She’s lovely and adorable and her YouTube videos make you feel like you are inside her home and inside her life. She has no celebrity air about her. She’s everyone’s friend. But there is a line. It’s unfair to assume she is always available.

At Zoe and Alfie’s Madame Tussaud’s launch party I made a little joke that now that teens have the option to have their photo taken with the waxwork counterparts perhaps it might stop people from needing to come to their house. Fingers crossed.

No Responses

  1. It’s an issue that worries me constantly now that my daughter is 10 nearly 11. In a house that is technology led (my husband works in media), we are very strict about access and appropriate use. Having been on Facebook for 9 years (unbelieveable!), I have now taken my account down. I deactivated for a month in the run up to Christmas, and didn’t miss it. I know how to contact the people that mean something to me, but don’t feel the need anymore to keep up with every detail of their lives. At some point this year, I will request that my account be deleted altogether.

    I think FB has had it’s day. In fact, Princeton university research predicted that like all viruses, Facebook will peak and die out, it’s decline having been predicted to take place between 2015 and 2017, and it has already begun with fewer teenagers opening new accounts.

    Having been active on the web pretty much since it’s inception in the early 90s, I have been very careful always about what I share online, pathologically so in fact, and I think for the most part I have done a good job. I have always had a strong web presence, but have been able to navigate the web happliy and relatively incident free.

    I still believe that the web is one of the most amazing creations of the 20th century, or indeed since the industrial revolution, despite it’s dark side. But, I have often wondered if Tim Berners-Lee has ever had a J. Robert Oppenheimer moment when contemplating his creation, murmuring the opening lines of the Bhagavad Gita.

    I will continue to blog as I always have done, but will remain circumspect about which details I choose to share, as I always have been.


  2. Becky says:

    The only thing that worries me is that if people know my location they know I’m not home and might try to burgle my flat. Not that my address is available online but that’s paranoia for you.
    I think most of the concerns would go away if we could teach people what is and is not acceptable behaviour. Surely everyone knows you shouldn’t just take someone’s photo without asking? Surely everyone knows you can’t just show up at people’s homes? Surely everyone knows circling flaws in photos is horrible? I’ve honestly no idea how it can still be allowed to happen.

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