Product Design B.Des
Dissertation Draft 1
Private Lives in a Public Space:
How Web 2.0 is changing our relationship to secrecy and privacy.
The term “Web 2.0” does not refer to any technical advancement, but instead to a change in the way software developers and end users are using the World Wide Web. In this new model for the Internet everyone is equal and has the opportunity to share their opinions or administrate their own website. User generated content is an important aspect in this, where a site requires a certain amount of input from the user to create the content. Obvious examples of this change are social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace, video-hosting sites like YouTube as well as blogs, Wikipedia and Google Maps’ Explore function. Most of these websites allow other users to comment on or reply to the original object.
In this essay I intend to explore these sites and their role in modern society, particularly focusing on the way they are affecting our relationship with themes such as secrecy and privacy. In 2009, it has been estimated that a quarter of the world’s population use the resource of the Internet. It has never been easier for people to connect across the world. Millions of strangers now have the ability to come together and share common experiences and interests. As western society becomes increasingly secularised (with the possible exception of the USA) and conventional religion takes a back seat a phenomenon is occurring on the Internet. Traditionally confession happened in a place of worship, between a religious leader and the confessor and the identity of the confessor was kept a secret. Now, there are several sites popping up on the Internet offering a similar service, without asking for anything in return.
I have held an interest in this subject ever since I was first linked to Frank Warren’s www.postsecret.com. This site asks users to send secrets on one side of a postcard to Warren’s home address and to use a certain amount of creativity in their efforts. Postsecret is the most popular example of a confessional site, but I am also interested in things like Twitter and Facebook, where it is easy to quickly display one’s life to the world, or online banking, which asks a person to trust the internet with all their finances – even when they are aware fraudulent “phishing scams” exist. I find it fascinating that the Internet offers a chance to become whomever you desire. This feature can be used innocently, in programs such as Second Life, where the user creates a persona, which can be as life like or as fanciful as they wish, or for the most sinister means such as fraud or for grooming.
As part of my research I would like to interview Frank Warren, and attempt to get a postcard picked for “Sunday Secrets”. Though I have been an avid voyeur of the secrets posted there for 4 years now, I have never become an active participant, and sent in a secret of my own. I think this will help me understand what motivates people to take part and what emotions and feelings are evoked when sending a card.
Topics such as this are so new – the internet was only set up in a meaningful way in the mid-1990s – that it can be quite difficult to find relevant, academic literature, which can be regarded as more than just opinion. A Google search of “Web 2.0” using the Timeline application yields results no older than mid-2005, with the majority falling between 2007 and 2008. There are plenty of authors writing about the psychology and anthropology involved in secrecy and private lives, and several writing about the influence of Web 2.0 but few that combine the two – and that is my challenge.
As mentioned above, Web 2.0 does not represent a change in technology, merely a change in the behaviour the internet’s users and developers, which lead to the emergence of user-generated content sites. These websites require some form of input from the audience to make up the bulk of their substance. Examples of this change are social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace or Twitter, video-hosting sites like YouTube as well as bogs, Wikipedia and Google Maps’ Explore function.
As these tools become more and more common to everyday use it is possible to see a shift towards the Internet being greatly edited and used by the amateur user. Is this change in power a positive or negative transformation? During the summer of 2009, after the controversial election President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, the Iranian government imposed strict limits on foreign media within the country, requiring journalists to obtain permission before leaving their offices. As the majority of media in Iran is government controlled, protests against the government and the violence involved were going largely unheard. Iranian’s began Tweeting their experiences and soon #iranelection was a Trending Topic (and remained so for a considerable time). Since then the hash-tag has never disappeared from Twitter (see Figure 1.)
Figure 1 - Taken from Trendistic.com/iranelection
Soon, eyewitnesses were uploading their pictures and videos to sites such as Flickr and YouTube – many showing graphic scenes of violence and bloodshed. Users also began to overlay their avatars in green to show their support for those in Iran. So this seems like a positive shift towards users having power on the Internet – giving repressed people a voice, raising an awareness of the situation and letting others show their support. However, as was discussed on the 04/11/09 edition of Radio 4’s Moral Maze, which was about Twitter and its power to create protest and “mobs”, this wasn’t necessarily the positive, free protest of the Iranian people. It is known that many accounts Tweeting about the election were actually agent provocateurs working for the Iranian government, which were trying to give out misinformation. While it would seem that a large amount of attention was being drawn to the plight of the Iranian people by the movement, many of the Tweets coming from outside Iran clearly were ill-informed about the situation or were viral RTs (RT stands for “ReTweet” where one account holder reposts the Tweet of another, at marks it with “RT” to show this). Social media such as Twitter allows the user to express an opinion, or re-express the opinion of someone else, with little thought or consideration. On the other hand Twitter is often used as a place to bounce readers to news sites and blogs, which can help them, create more enlightened opinions on a subject. Those who argue for Twitter would say that the Iranian people would not be on the streets protesting if Twitter had not been there to organise and liberate them. Those apposed argue back saying that they were on the streets because they had been oppressed for 30 years.
With this ability for amateurs to take control of the web, there is clearly a loss in professional opinion – informed experts, professional journalists and newspapers, web designers and official sites all lose out. And we lose their expertise. While it may be liberating for the man on the street, or rather behind his computer, to express his opinion – “the opinion of the people” (which it so often is not) – he has no real knowledge of what it is to practise real journalism. Usually his information will be at least second hand, or mere opinion, rather than the more reliable first hand experience a journalist has the resources to find. In his book The Cult of the Amateur – an exploration of the way the Web 2.0 revolution has handed the web to the narcissistic citizen - Andrew Keen gives his opinion of this shift;
“For the real consequence of the Web 2.0 revolution is less culture, less reliable news, and a chaos of useless information. One chilling reality in this brave new digital epoch is the blurring, obfuscation and even disappearance of truth.” (Keen, p.16; 2007)
He also warns that this model of media breaks the world into “a billion personalised truths, each seemingly equally valid and worthwhile” (Keen, p.17; 2007).
Of course there are examples of professionals and experts abusing the opportunity the Internet presents for them to pretend to be amateurs. For example, a video appeared on YouTube, parodying Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, mocking its serious message. This seemingly homemade video, which has at the time of writing received 602,000 views, turned out to have originated from DCI Group, a conservative Washington, D.C. lobbying firm whose clients include ExxonMobil.
When one uses the Internet, a strange thing is happening. With face-to-face interaction, and even with a phone call it is possible to know something about the person with which you are communicating. If you can see them then you can make a guess at their age, can read their body language and make assumptions about their character based on the information your eyes have collected. When speaking on the phone things such as accent and tone of voice give away personality traits and basic personal information. The Internet however provides a completely anonymous communication platform. This puts an interesting spin on our ideas of trust, truth and privacy.
Rabinowitz’s essay Soft Fictions and Intimate Documents: Can Feminism Be Posthuman? proposes that woman are in fact “posthuman” as until the recent achievements of the feminist movement history has been recorded in terms of “Man” and from a male perspective. This led me to question whether the interface of ones computer is a “posthuman”. A remote user, a stranger, gives the machine a voice – but they are so distant to us that they are dehumanised and we are less sensitive to the reality. Do we trust these posthuman machines because we feel they cannot betray us? Or perhaps it is just much easier to confess to a faceless machine, as they do not appear to judge our behaviour. If we consider them “posthuman”, outside conventional human society, then perhaps they can sympathise with our unconventional secrets.
An example of this is the apparent desensitising of people in relation to bloodshed and war in the media. In an article (A Desensitized American Psyche, 10/04/09) for The Harvard Crimson, the daily newspaper from Harvard University, Andrew Nunnelly discusses the recent lifting of an 18-year ban, which prevented the American press from reporting on the return to the USA of the bodies of fallen soldiers. The ban was intended as a mark of respect and to protect the privacy of the families involved. Recently however it had been criticised as an attempt to hide the true cost of the Gulf wars. Many are pleased by this lifting, for the sake of free speech and political awareness, but as Nunnelly comments;
“In a society that has already been desensitized to death and violence, and which revels in the public exposure of all things private, I think that it is possible that our opinions on the issue have less to do with indignation about two wars and more to do with our warped, Web 2.0 understanding of privacy.”
The Vietnam War was the first time that the American public had been exposed to the true horrors of war – through televised newsreels. At the time these were shocking to civilians, but now seem relatively tame. We witness these things everyday, are updated every minute by 24-hour news channels and Internet news sites. We also consume violent war movies and increasingly realistic computer games for fun. It is obvious that the remoteness of the person/screen interaction has contributed to this. It has also contributed to our thirst for information on aspects of the private lives of celebrities and politicians.
The British documentary Starsuckers (Chris Atkins, 2009) is an exploration of the modern obsession with celebrity life. The film claims that our brains, which developed when we were still shuffling around in caves, create our need for celebrity news. In the early days of the human, those who were part of large groups tended to out survive individuals. The most popular members of the group tended to emerge as the leaders, thus if you yourself could not become a leader it was wise to make sure you stayed close to these leaders. So we seek to know the private lives of everyone, in an attempt to understand them better.
Most celebrities shy away from the media intrusion of their lives, or at least pretend to. We know that often, “leaked” details can often come from PR, aiming to increase the press coverage of a certain celebrity – the old adage that “there’s no such thing as bad press.” Increasingly there is a new generation of celebrities using social media to their advantage – and who are often far more willing to give people what they want in terms of personal information. Mitch Benn (comedian and musician) often tweets with the hash-tag #thingsGretasays, Greta being his 4 year old daughter. An example would be,
Of course, this is a relatively harmless comment but does posting comments about ones children cross a boundary? Mitch Benn’s 13,048 followers all hear snippets from Greta Benn’s life – a 4 year old unable to control what her parents say about her on the internet. Other examples of celebrities using social media include Imogen Heap – a musician who tweets regularly on her life as a musician and on tour, and Amanda Palmer, a musician who also tweets about her life. Palmer in particularly also is happy to give more private details;
“Amandapalmer: i am so menstrual”
1:52 AM Nov 6th from web
Other examples have seen her giving detailed descriptions of illness, posting photos of her posing nude, online auctions which include personal items such as a glass dildo and what her and her boyfriend, Neil Gaiman are doing and where they are. Neil Gaiman doesn’t tend to post such personal things himself, and is the 110th most popular Tweeter in the world (Palmer is 448th). In a recent tweet, Palmer said;
“Amandapalmer: just got in a car accident with @neilhimself on the brooklyn queens expressway. Brilliant”
“scary traffic rear-Ender. we stopped short, car behind banged into us. cars are slightly bent, nobodys hurt but everybodys shaky.”
Her own followers began sending messages saying they hoped she was safe. However, by naming Gaiman (aka @neilhimself) she inadvertently caused him to be inundated by messages.
“poor @neilhimself got a gazillion emails and phone calls after i tweeted our fender bender. sometimes i forget how famous he is. oops.”
2:13 AM Nov 15th from web
Social media such as Twitter, which allows a user to name another user via any interactive feature similar to Twitter’s own “mention” feature (where, by placing an “@” sign in front of a username, a link to their page is created, and other users can search for these mentions) gives account holders the power to share personal aspects of not only their own lives, but those of others. Before the subject of the mention has time to react or object, the interactive link has alerted thousands to their actions, especially with the ability of other readers to ReTweet the original text. Incidents such as this are examples of the way that social media is evolving faster than we can get a handle on it (e.g. when I tagged a classmate in a Facebook status update, saying that we were singing along to Disney songs – minutes before he reminded everyone that “this never leaves the studio.” This created some tension.)
Many experts and writers claim that the Internet is having a detrimental effect on society. The tagline for Andrew Keen’s 2007 The Cult of the Amateur reads;
“How blogs, MySpace, YouTube and the rest of today’s user-generated media are killing our culture and economy” (Keen, 2007)
As mentioned above, Keen’s work focuses particularly on the opportunity Web 2.0 gives its users to consider themselves, and be considered as experts or professionals, and to feed their egos. Keen appeared on the BBC4 show It’s Only A Theory (17/11/2009, BBC4) arguing his theory that “User generated media is killing our culture and economy” – and specified that he is focusing his attention on sites such as Facebook and YouTube. His theory stated that our society is suffering and that the Internet has become merely “a platform for our feelings”. As an example he asked the panelists to imagine that they selected members of the audience and asked them to produce the show – “it would be a farce” quipped Keen. His argument followed that there are two main problems with the Internet – that it is a technology which allows us to express ourselves freely, without thought or with prior knowledge of a subject, and secondly that we are consuming less mainstream media such as newspapers and television, which tends to come from an informed perspective.
If it was discovered that an article in a national newspaper, posing as a researched piece, was written by a naïve member of the public, speaking only from their own opinions and hearsay, there would be public outcry and the paper would potentially have publish an apology or an explanation. Viewers are (generally) aware that the majority of blogs, YouTube channels, Wikipedia and Twitter feeds are run and updated by amateurs (of course, professional journalists, scientists etc also update and maintain information on these sites, but are a minority compared to the overall population of the Internet). However most still demonstrate an instinctive trust in these sources. Traditionally, we are taught from the moment we begin to read that most written media – textbooks, newspapers, non-fiction books, journals – are intrinsically correct. Of course, free thinking is encouraged, but the sense that the author knows their subject well, and thus have an elevated status above us, always lingers. It may be the transfer of these paper-based skills to the relatively new platform of the Internet, which causes users to trust online sources. Users will also have to write the rules on what is socially acceptable on the Internet. The way the Internet allows people to connect worldwide is so different from what has gone before that there is not necessarily a precedent for how people should behave on the Internet. As people begin to connect and share information all across the Earth, there is a merging of various cultures and backgrounds which have to gel together, as well as entirely new set of behaviors. And so, in these early years of the Internet we are seeing an emergence of what may become the norm in the future, or evolve further. Websites like Postsecret, which offer narcissistic outlets and give the opportunity for everyone’s 5 minutes of fame (all be it anonymously in this case) may seem strange, vulgar or mundane and self pitying at present, but in years to come it may become a more normal way for people to communicate, especially in an increasingly touchy-feely world. As it becomes socially acceptable for people, especially men, to show their emotional sides or be considered “metrosexual”, more outlets for egotism may materialize, and be an accepted part of modern life.
I personally don’t think that Web 2.0 is “killing our culture and economy” – merely that we are in a transitional period where our technologies are advancing faster than we can learn to understand them and use them properly. The Internet has come about in a relatively short space of time – public interest in it only really came about in the 1990s, with it’s most explosive level of growth between 1996 and 1997. Thus the majority of current users learnt to use the Internet during their adult lives. Currently there is a conflict between what they have learned in the real world to be socially acceptable and the opportunities presented by Web 2.0. This quote, from Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy always comes to mind when concidering subjects such as this;
“Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things." – Douglas Adams
The web savvy are beginning to realise the potential the Internet presents them to make changes to the lives and standards of those far away, or traditionally more powerful, as they discover that they can influence what become normal internet behaviors. Amanda Palmer has experienced a lot of trouble with her record company, Road Runner Records – their poor promotion of her album, taking huge margins from her sales and not funding her properly. She has used both Twitter and her blog to make very public her problems with her contract and generally give the company bad press. When Palmer recorded a video for her song Leeds United that had a lot of involvement from fans, Road Runner rejected it – saying that she was too fat to go topless in the video;
Outraged, fans quickly set up the website www.therebellyon.com in response. The site asked fans to send in pictures of their own stomachs – to show support for Amanda’s belly and bellies everywhere. This whimsical site is a great example of how Web 2.0 can bring people together. It also asks them to post photographs of a part of their body not often on display. In a weight obsessed world many people would be hesitant to show their stomach to potentially everyone on the web – but something about this format, in which it is not necessary to show ones face, and where everyone is doing it, made it acceptable.
But of course, we know in the back of our minds that when we converse with a screen, we are conversing with a human somewhere. Again, we are liberated by the distance we feel from them. Our personal lives will not affect those of strangers. Online confessors and groups are clearly seeking something they cannot find in their everyday lives. In general, there is an increase in overlap between social and online lives – social networking sites provide opportunities for “real life” friends to come together – Facebook for example has an ‘Events’ application to make easier the organizing of events, parties, protests etc and a more intimate e-mail service which makes it simple to add several contacts to a conversation for inviting guests, to say, a dinner party. But when sharing the intimacies of ones private life, these tools may not be relevant.
Looking specifically at www.postsecret.blogspot.com we find a website devoted to the secrets of it’s viewers. As mentioned in my introduction this site requires users to send in postcards which tell a secret on the front side, usually decorated in someway, the tag line being “PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people
mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard.” (www.postsecret.blogspot.com, 08/11/09). Started by Frank Warren in 2005, it claims to be the biggest, advertisement-free blog in the world and has received 280, 822, 820 visitors at the time of writing. Warren, who has been described as “the most trusted stranger in America”, often opens the talks he regularly gives at colleges across America saying, “Everyone has a secret that would break your heart, if only you knew.” Arguably, this could be quite true. However the secrets shared on his site are more often than not extremely sentimental and narcissistic – rather than shocking or indeed heart-breaking.
(Taken from www.postsecret.blogspot.com on 25/04/09)
This secret for example, while possibly being something the artist has never admitted to an acquaintance is hardly a deep, dark secret and its self-pitying nature is hardly heart breaking. If it has never been said out loud, it’s probably because the author realises no one will really take the “secret” seriously. This is a shame, as this form of confessional site offers something quite different from it’s counterparts – instead of an instant response or hastily written, ill-thought through message or secret, a site which requires a physical response (the postcards) from it’s users should provoke better thought through answers. From secret to share takes a lot of effort. Firstly, the revealer, the person sending the postcard, must harbour a secret they feel is of worth, or which they particularly desire to share. Next they must create the postcard – most cards use a mix of collage, printed text, found images, ready-made postcards or photographs. Then they must buy a stamp and post the secret. They have no idea whether it will ever end up on postsecret.com. So why do they do it? The card must then travel to Germantown, Maryland, USA (an unremarkable town 20 miles from Washington DC) to the home of Frank Warren. Depending on the postage used and the distance, this could take weeks. It arrives along with up to 1000 other postcards that week. Then it has to make it into the top 20 selected for that week’s Sunday Secrets. When asked how he chooses which secrets make the cut Warren has said “I look for a ring of authenticity and real human emotions.” If the secret doesn’t make the grade then it has the chance of getting into the next Postsecret book or being part of Warren’s lecture series, in which he tours colleges in America, talking about the project. The Sunday secrets don’t necessarily reflect the average secret sent to Warren – he affects them in his choice. He is the one who has the power to vocalise them to the wider world, or to keep them to himself. I wonder how the owners of the rejected secrets feel. Do they feel liberated, simply for having shared their secret with Warren or do they experience something else? Fear perhaps that the secret has fallen into the wrong hands, or indifference as nothing has been gained or lost.
To try and gain a better understanding of users relationship with Postsecret, I created a questionnaire on www.surveymonkey.com. I appreciate that this survey is rather unscientific – I posted the link to my Facebook page, my Twitter feed and my blog, and so while the survey was completely anonymous, it is safe to assume that most respondents are aged between 17 and 25, mostly from middle class backgrounds, have a reasonable level of English and are personal friends of mine None the less, in 24 hours I had received 17 replies, which ranged from those who had never heard of Postsecret, or were disinterested in it, to those who checked it every week, and even a few who had submitted their own secrets. . The majority said that they had heard of the site (13 had compared to 4 who had not), probably because those who had were more likely to be interested in taking part in the survey. From the responses it was clear to see that those who had first accessed the site between the ages of 15-16, or while still in high school had a much greater emotional attachment to it than those who were introduced to it whilst at university. One respondent, who first came across Postsecret, aged 15 and in school admitted to having submitted a secret. When asked what motivated them to do so they replied;
“To share something with the world that I would never have been able to get off my chest otherwise.”
I noticed that they didn’t articulate why they felt they needed to “share something with the world”. In response to a question about their thoughts and feelings before, during and after sending the secret they replied;
“I was nervous that someone would see the postcard(s) I was making. Once I'd sent it I felt relief and when I saw it I was slightly amused knowing that nobody at the exhibition knew that it was mine.”
The other secret submitter also admitted a certain amount of terror that someone would read the secret before it was posted, and told me that they kept it on themselves until they could post it. The second poster said they sent in a secret because Postsecret gave them “The ability to tell something to everyone, yet no one.”
Frank Warren’s site, being based in America, is largely an English language site. Postcards received can come from all over the English speaking world, but also, occasionally from other countries, sometimes written in English, and sometimes in their own language. In response to this, there are several other sites world wide. The original Postsecret site has links to German and French. There is also a Spanish site which is a copy of the original – with the secrets translated into Spanish. Both the French and German sites use the same blogspot template as the American site and have similar domain names (www.postsecretfrance.blogspot.com, www.postsecretdeutsch.blogspot.com). Warren endorses the French, German and Spanish sites. Similar ventures exist at www.postsecret.ru (a Russian version) and www.postsecret.gr (a Greek version). However, these haven’t worked as well as their West European counterparts. The Russian site has only a few postcards, mostly collages, and in a mixture of English and Russian. The Greek site only displays text – there are no secrets to be found. Perhaps the idea of sharing ones secrets isn’t so attractive in these countries, and it may also be due to lower rates of Internet access. While 79.8% o Brits and 74% of Americans are online, only 46% and 27% of Greece and Russian respectively have Internet access (stats:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_number_of_Internet_users, 13/11/09).
Further discussion and development:
The Internet outside of Western culture.
Sex blogs? – ie Belle De Jour’s recent unmasking.
Considered aspects of Postsecret vs instant sites such as FML.
Why do we keep/tell secrets? (Sissela Bok)
Bibliography – a work in progress. Will add references last, as they must be added in order.
Glossary – would a glossary of terms be useful?
Now go make yourself a snack, but first, leave a comment.
Now go make yourself a snack, but first, leave a comment.