mar 5

Human Flesh Search Engines

The New York Times Magazine has a long article about an online phenomenon in China: "human flesh search engines:" [via Waxy]

They are a form of online vigilante justice in which Internet users hunt down and punish people who have attracted their wrath. The goal is to get the targets of a search fired from their jobs, shamed in front of their neighbors, run out of town. It's crowd-sourced detective work, pursued online -- with offline results.

The article opens with the story of a woman who appeared in an anonymous web video stomping a cat to death. Viewers organized an effort to identify her. Shortly thereafter, living in a small town in a country of one billion people, she was identified. And ostracized.

The article suggests such efforts are more mainstream in China than in the US, though identification and subsequent harassment of "people who have attracted their wrath" is common among certain online communities here, too. In fact there are exact parallels: a group of users on 4chan have also tracked down a cat abuser (among many others).

But perhaps all online communities and social networks are essentially human flesh search engines, or easily transformed into them as desired -- although usually with less malice. We might not be much more closely connected than we have been in past years, but with 400 million people on Facebook alone, discovering (and persisting) those connections is becoming trivial. Powered by the data and photos in these social networks, recent technological advancements such as real-time face recognition built into cellphones will soon erode, if not entirely dissolve, anonymity.

With your anonymity goes your privacy. Does it matter? Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg says a desire for privacy is no longer the "social norm." But maybe such social norms were a casualty of his -- and others' -- business models. Uploading a photo of myself doesn't mean I want everyone to be able to identify me on the street. Emailing clients regularly doesn't mean I want them to see the names of everyone else I'm in contact with. But to Facebook, Google, and other companies, it does. This is the bargain we've made: give me convenience and connectedness, and I'll give you my anonymity and privacy.

We know the short-term consequences of this already -- insurers checking up on us, bosses peering into our personal lives, and so on -- but what are the long-term social and psychological consequences? Adults today have had years of disconnection from their pasts and had the option of growing up and evolving outside the gaze of their childhood peers, their relatives, etc. But today's kids will spend their entire lives on the social web. Will this hold back their personal growth in any way? Would you be different if everyone you've known from elementary school and beyond could look in on you at any time? Will today's kids grow up acting more conservatively because they know their behavior (and that of their friends) will be publicly and permanently documented? Or, will this instead cause a greater liberalization of social behavior as they become adults in a generation that accepts everyone acts foolishly, and everyone's foolish acts are publicly and permanently documented?

Or maybe the problem will solve itself. It seems possible that if nearly everyone you've ever met is your "friend" on Facebook, then your social network will eventually become so diffuse and the amount of information available will be so overwhelming, no one will bother checking up on anyone they don't really care about. Sound familiar? Maybe the social network will supplant the role that the internet played in our lives 10 years ago: others could often find you in its vastness if they cared, but they didn't. Just as ten years before that, we all had our names in the phone book, but no one called. The social norms adapt.

How do you see them evolving in the next 5 - 10 years? And how will Facebook and Google respond to or drive the changes? --ADM


I guess I'm probably on the record as one of the people who finds more good than bad in the end of privacy.

But I'll say this: I don't think this train is as uni-directional as it seems. It's like those trend stories right now that are telling us the internet is getting nice. Some sectors are, and others are getting much less nice. It's much more polarizing than it seems.

What I'm trying to say is: privacy is dying, but anonymity is also on the rise. Whereas we once had this murky middle of usernames and pseudonyms, we now have people who live their entire life in public while also having a secret anon blog.

In some weird way, it's getting less complicated... but probably not in a good way.

posted by Rex at 8:51 AM on March 5, 2010

@rex: On some level, I agree with you about the "more good than bad" part. Ideally, the only "bad" part would be from people who are doing something wrong to start.

But this is the new battlefield of a culture war, and there's nothing good about that. The problem isn't that some social media agent is sharing details of your blatant abuse of a sick day... the problem is that many of us, honest or not, feel the need to use sick days for personal uses. There is a deeper problem in that which transcends the media used to traffic information... it is a problem of broken and toxic relationships. In the sick day example, it's the problem of a dishonest (and, most likely, justifiably miserable) employee giving "cause" to a predatory employer. We all screw up at times, but is a fudged sick day a firing offense (when the average cost of new recruiting for a corporate office position is $20,000 or more)? In these times, yes, because employers (private and public), generally speaking, have an agenda to reduce headcount (THIS ECONOMY!) and are looking for any reason to do so. And when you terminate someone nowadays, you are depriving them of vital care and nourishment because they likely cannot get another job above the poverty line easily. Same thing with the whole health insurance debacle... the problem is a regulatory system that, currently, allows insurers to both disqualify reimbursements for "preexisting conditions" or allows insurers, sometimes in weaselly ways, to kick these people off their rolls altogether. (And in some cases, deny these people reasonable opportunities to work in an insurance-benefit position in the first place)

If Twitter/Google are the media over which some of these business or social transactions take place, are Twitter/Google abusing the audience? Not necessarily. Twitter is fairly neutral infrastructure, and Google seems to have an intent of social responsibility.

But Facebook revels in it. Zuckerberg is not a protective shepherd of his flock... he's the wolf. Where other services have been neutral or protective of privacy concerns (you have to deliberately open your privacy settings to be fully "public"), Facebook is, by default, very wide open and very encouraging of risky behavior. This is because Facebook, like Internet companies of two decades ago, doesn't thrive on it's present relationship with customers and users; it thrives on a perception of endless growth and steeply-upward utilization curves. The more, the better. And to get there, Facebook is openly and actively encouraging its users to share EVERYTHING, with few controls or warnings about harm prevention. Even putting aside the above examples of lives ruined... I'm sure many well-intending people have needlessly lost respect and eroded friendships over some FarmVille or Birthday Quiz!-type viral app bullshit that returns zero value. Facebook wants you to engage fully in all of it, consequences be damned. And for that, regarding the 99% of the audience that doesn't have an expert background in information management, Facebook is a predator.

As such, because we have fucked-up employers, a fucked-up healthcare system, and a bunch of fucked-up Internet companies conspiring to waste our time if not sell our valuable secrets... the world is imperfect. And going back to that first paragraph "Ideally", our concepts of ubiquitous communication in an ideal world do not apply. The media has to fit the world it exists in. If not, disorder and chaos are the consequences. Disruptive change might be more apt in, say, Iran, but here in the US we have a good enough thing going such that we don't want a bunch of academics and entrepreneurs pushing us into the abyss for the sake of intellectual validation... or a quick buck.

posted by BrianVan at 10:03 AM on March 5, 2010

Whee! Now we have both the longest post and the longest comment in Fimoc history!

posted by Rex at 10:26 AM on March 5, 2010

If someone does something cruel like harm an animal -- and they do this on a video for all to see -- then they deserve what they get. Period.

posted by Girl at 12:36 PM on March 5, 2010

Funny coincidence: Gawker just posted a long story alleging that in Facebook's earliest days Zuckerberg himself accessed the emails of his 'enemies.'

posted by adm at 12:41 PM on March 5, 2010

What I see happening: Facebook can make money, and tie in the consumer for the long term (MZ take note) by allowing people to download their entire Facebook history - all the posts/photographs/status updates/messages/data in applications etc. Thus for $5/year, we the users have the diary that we never bothered to write, and all the brilliance that we put into the one line status update is ours to keep instead of lost forever.

I want my own searchable facebook history. I'd pay $20/year for the pleasure, and if I was paying, I'd put a bit more effort into being great.

Was this on-topic?

posted by PsyArch at 5:50 PM on March 6, 2010

You brought up issues that really stir my mind, adm and BrianVan. Just because online norms are changing doesn't mean the whole of society is in step.

What are the LT effects of living a public online life? Can we break out of our roles and seek fresh starts and a new direction if detailed descriptions of our lives (including all our gaffes, big and small) are etched into the fabric of the Web since we were a child?

I think based on the phone book and google name searching examples you mentioned adm, we'll inevitably find a new center of gravity in our online presence that matches who we are now. I sense we'll, in a general sense, seek out those connections based on immediate relevancy more than ever. While information is more available, it is also more relevant, with less relevant or past details fading more and more quickly into the background.

However, we're in a 'awkward' phase of devt during which institutions, our values, our in-person connections, and our emerging trends are simply not in sync. These media trends AREN'T our entire world, just a subset of it, like what you said BrianVan. Our social structures (education, healthcare, law, politics, employment, security) are simply not in line with real-time relevancy of information in mind, nor are their agendas concerned with our best interest. These institutions can, will, and DO discriminate against us based on ALL of what they see, relevant or irrelevant. The message to throw caution to the wind based completely on the ideal of ubiquity is dangerous, similar to what you said BrianVan, to the degree we're beholden to these social structures.

In the far future (ie. 30 years or so), I can imagine our human-ness and corresponding details of our lives will become practically irrelevant, as we evolve out of our humanity and mesh into technology (a la Singularity - thx adm for your links awhile ago!)..but until then, there's a lot to watch for.

posted by @dustmapper at 11:23 AM on March 7, 2010

Wow, I had never heard of this phenomenon before. This could definitely inspire one of my friends who write detective novels, there might be something to this. It has a lot of potential for stories.

As for the real life aspect of it, I think the freedom of the internet is much more a great thing than a dangerous one. Although flesh-searches could be done just as easily by white supremacy groups or jihadists as a regular joe looking for justice, the major opinion of the "netizens" will in the end be the most successful and powerful.

In other words, small groups with harmful intentions won't be as successful in finding their target as the general population. Therefore I see this type of cooperation as a good thing.

posted by Kris at 9:00 PM on March 7, 2010

Mike Arrington at Techcrunch just posted on this topic.

posted by ADM at 12:15 PM on March 28, 2010

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