Do we have the right to observe others without their knowledge?
Fifty years before Facebook came along this question would have been a much easier to answer. The answer would have been a quick “No. Of course not.”
In the physical world, this point of view still holds true. We don’t assume it’s our right to follow someone around town, hiding behind trashcans and bushes to mask our presence. But how does this point of view shift when we get on the web?
Recently, my girlfriend introduced me to a fascinating debate currently underway in a relatively small niche social network / blogging platform. It’s a closed system composed of mostly alumnae of the same university, and each person has a profile to which they can publish any length of text, including links, pics, and videos. Very much like any blog, except a bit more like LiveJournal in its closed-off-ness and how the posts tend to be very referential to each other in more of an ongoing community dialogue than just a collection of personal commentary.
Historically this platform has had a function available that enables users to see who is reading whose profiles; i.e. if I opted in to this feature, other users would be able to see that I had read their profile, and I would be able to see which users were reading my profile. But, this is a strictly opt-in two-way feature. Only the people who have opted in can be seen by others.
Not at all unlike Facebook, some people prefer to read other profiles anonymously, without the performer knowing that they are out there in the audience.
But, a few weeks ago, one of the super-admins floated the idea of automatically opting everyone in – by default – to the non-anonymous version of the system. In other words, everyone would be able to see everyone who had visited their profile, and no one would be able to visit anyone else’s profile without that person knowing.
As you might guess, not everyone was comfortable with this situation. Imagine if one day Facebook announced that they had changed the rules, and suddenly we each had a Visitor Reports page that listed which other users had checked out our profile recently, what they checked out, and how frequently they visited. For an instant it might be awesome…before we quickly realized that everyone else had it, too. Suddenly all of our exes, first-grade crushes, ex-friends, workplace crushes, arch nemesis and mortal enemies, and all the other people we keep tabs on would see that we had been visiting their profile. I suspect we’d see a previously unimagined level of outrage from the Facebook user community.
Which leads me in a very round-about way (Forgive me. You take two months off from blogging, and it takes a little time to get back in shape.) to my original question: Do we have the right to observe others without their knowledge? The scenario above, and imagining how it would be treated within Facebook, leads me to answer emphatically, “Yes. Absolutely. …on the web.”
What is it about the web that flips this long-held social norm on its head? Why do we guard our browsing habits so closely? Why are we scared of what Google might have to share about us? Why do we feel that it’s our right to look at someone’s Facebook photos without them knowing?