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What’s in a name?

Anoushka Shankar’s saga of harassment sent a shudder down many spines,simply because we know that you don’t have to...

Written by Amulya Gopalakrishnan |
September 23, 2009 1:52:04 am

Anoushka Shankar’s saga of harassment sent a shudder down many spines,simply because we know that you don’t have to be a celebrity to be vulnerable in exactly the same way. Even if your Facebook account or email isn’t actually hacked,the Web enables dramatic violations of personal space. Stories like this are the downside of the constant self-narration we now take for granted on the Web. Increasingly,difficult questions about privacy and reputation are jostling our celebration of this wondrous and liberating medium.

We live in a time of Facebook self-fashioning. Young people today are digital natives,with an entirely different concept of what’s private and what’s public. They have no experience that is not announced,their lives can be pieced together from vast photo archives,personal details are sprawled out for “friends of friends” and even more faraway connections. As David Weinberger puts it,on the Web,everyone’s famous for fifteen people. We drag longer and longer tails of personal information behind us,records that linger on whether or not we like it.

But even those who stage their lives for their friends do not always think about larger audiences. It is a peekaboo dynamic,of revealing and masking,behaving and performing. As a young person interviewed for a New York Times story confided,“he wanted his posts to be read,and feared that people would read them,and hoped that people would read them,and didn’t care if people read them.” In short,people are rarely prepared for the real and unfortunate ramifications of their online actions.

Even if you are not actively putting out information about yourself on a blog or social network,mighty marketing machines can sketch a pretty discomfiting picture of you from the various driblets of data you submit for routine online transactions and searches. And yet,apart from a handful of privacy activists,most people do not really seem to mind,or try not to think about the vast digital dossiers about them. If they’re watching you,it’s a pleasant enough panopticon.

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So now,we know more than ever about each other’s lives,but more information need not be better information or lead to more accurate judgments. Other way round,usually. Legal scholar Daniel Solove points out how the video of a young Korean woman who refused to pick up her dog’s poop on a subway became a viral phenomenon that would trail her for a small eternity. She was publicly shamed and heckled to an extent that far exceeded her crime. It is stories like this that dampen the excitement about the Web as a glorious free-for-all,and make us feel like prisoners of a wired world.

Have free speech absolutists discounted something crucial,the freedom to speak and act without worrying that it could all end up online,mangled and misread by people it was never meant for? Anyone who has been burned by the experience knows that gossip and rumour take on frightening force on the Web. While bitching about your workplace or friends,or taking down a public figure,has always gone on in tight private circles,now there is a scaldingly public dimension to every kind of trash talk. The New Yorker’s David Denby recently wrote a book about such snark (“personal,low,teasing,rug-pulling,finger-pointing,snide,obvious and knowing” abuse) which he says has “spread like a sneezy cold through the vast kindergarten of the web”. A blog like Wonkette which dishes out mean Beltway gossip,or the erstwhile War for News which rocked the Indian media scene a few years back,or even more intimate Facebook groups can be sites of unfair public shaming.

No matter how committed you are to free and unrestrained conversation on the Web,there is a nagging sense that online speech and action put the skids under the classic liberal division between words and deeds. As far back as 1993,the pioneering cyberspace writer Julian Dibbell wrote a famous account called “A Rape in Cyberspace”,about sexual violence on LambdaMOO,a multi-user game with avatars. One of the users,screen-named Mr Bungle,used a subprogram to sexually humiliate another user,who called herself legba. And just like that,what had been a sweet and harmless geek game,a bunch of people conspiring in a fiction,found itself facing an only-too-real social dilemma of crime and punishment. Was virtual violence still violence? “Where real life,on the other hand,insists the incident was confined to the realm of the symbolic and at no point threatening any player’s life,limb,or material well-being,here now was the player legba issuing aggrieved and heartfelt calls for Mr Bungle’s dismemberment”,wrote Dibbell. “Ludicrously excessive by Real Life’s lights,woefully understated by Virtual Reality’s,the tone of legba’s response made sense only in the buzzing,dissonant gap between them.”

Reputation is the bedrock of social interaction. We care tremendously about what others think of us,because we know these assessments make all the difference to our chances in life. And indeed,on the Internet,it matters more than ever. The Web is the closest we’ve come to a reputation economy,where your stock dips and rises by the judgment of others. How do you rewind/ delete/ undo a digital trail that embarrasses you? Walling oneself off is no longer a tenable option,but perhaps people should be handed their own control buttons,to contextualise and qualify info about themselves. Internet theorists like Jonathan Zittrain even suggest a reputation bankruptcy system,to give people a fresh start online.

Maybe in the longer term,as we take the digital glasshouse for granted,we’ll learn to cut each other some slack,and our ideas of privacy may mutate. But meanwhile,we are left groping for a balance that protects the openness and freedom of the Internet,without shredding the norms of personal inviolability. Who knows,Shashi Tharoor might have some ideas.

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First published on: 23-09-2009 at 01:52:04 am
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