Human Flesh Search Engines
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