When I was fifteen and a budding gay in Small Town, South Carolina, I had an AOL account and a single mother who didn't have the time or the wherewithal to keep up with my Internet doings. (Thank God something terrible didn't happen to me.)
Back then, my gay hero was Pedro from the Real World. I didn't know any out gay people, marriage equality wasn't discussed on TV day in and day out, and GLAAD wasn't honoring the networks for their LGBT-inclusive television. Well, maybe they were, but not like today. Oh, and GSA's? I didn't know what they were until college.
When I was a budding gay, I had AOL - chat rooms, to be exact. Under various screennames (remember when people did that?) I explored the "M4M community," often conversing with much older men who lived in my area. I sent emails to people I never met. I had a LiveJournal. I wrote about various longings, crushes and desires. Was it public? Strictly speaking, yes, in the most expansive sense of the word, yes. But did I feel like it was public? No.
I'm part of the strange generation that remembers personal computing "before" the Internet, but also witnessed personal computing at the dawn of the online era (back when Netscape was king). What we could do online seemed so oddly detached from the 3D world that we never much worried whether "real" people would catch wind of what we did, said, and portrayed ourselves to be online.
That's why a few years back when an older friend of mine made some off-hand comment about what you can find about a person online being "fair game" because it's "public" I got very upset. Just because I once published a diatribe against gay male support for Hillary Clinton on a blog (well, this blog) doesn't mean I intended for you to see it, I thought. Don't most online venues have relatively small and targeted audiences -- when you get right down to it, really?
Once upon a time, searching the web for information about people, places, and things was difficult and time-consuming enough that you could believe that though what you did online was technically public it wasn't likely to be regularly found. That's how I've felt comfortable exercising my free speech in what I considered limited public forums these past ten years.
And isn't that part of the beauty of the Internet? For a decade or more it has allowed us to express ourselves in ways that we might not otherwise in the "real" world. I know this is true for so many LGBT people - from dating sites to chat rooms, personal blogs to advocacy, information and news sites. We get to be and say what we feel, even if our circumstances don't allow us to express these things in our day-to-day lives. We get to express our politics fully with likeminded people from whom we can learn. The expectancy that what we send out into the ether is likely to remain just that, in the ether, has been a large part of the Internet's success at fostering creativity and a special brand of honesty.
Enter Gist, a new social networking platform (one of the hundreds that seem to crop up by the hour these days) that I became aware of today. Gist searches your various networks (webmail, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) for contacts, tracks down what it can about these contacts from the web (relevant RSS feeds, Twitter streams, etc.) and loads it into a web-based account. From this account you can "manage" your personal contacts (aka follow everything "public" and identifiable they're doing online) and view your personal network through a dashboard.
Imagine Twitter as a bully and a snitch.
Gist is only in beta right now, but it already scares the bejesus out of me (and I do social media for a living). Here's why:
- You don't have to opt-in to Gist to be part of its service. When I logged in today and synced Gist with my Twitter account, it pulled as much information about everyone I follow on Twitter as it could find. That includes Google image searches for people's names, which, by the way, is a terribly inaccurate way to find photos of someone.
- You aren't notified when someone starts "following" you - and by following you, I mean having a "dashboard" view of all things "public" that you do online. Now, granted, this doesn't mean showing all of your Facebook information if your Facebook account has privacy settings out the wazoo, but it does include RSS feeds related to you, sites where your full name is published, Twitter feeds, etc., and I imagine over time it will include more.
- It pulls relatively old information. Case in point, it pulled Bilerico weekly digests posts including links to things I'd written from last August as part of the "dashboard" view of me. What?
To make matters worse, I posted a tweet this afternoon expressing my dismay at Gist's ability to aggregate all of this disparate "public" information about me in a "manage my contacts" environment. Very soon after, a Gist representative mentioned me in a tweet that said, "We care about the privacy of your data and pull information from publicly available sources. Pls email us with any questions."
First of all, I don't follow them on Twitter and they don't follow me - not in the Twitter sense of the word. Now, my tweets aren't protected. I understand that searches can pull them, but isn't it still really creepy when a company trying to manage their brand @ replies you to comment on a statement you were making to, well, mostly just your friends and followers? When I tell my roommates that Newman's Own chunky salsa isn't nearly as good as Newman's Own black bean and corn salsa, a Newman's rep doesn't get to poke his head in my kitchen window and say they had a bad batch of tomatoes....
Back to Gist. I posted in reply, "It's not how you provide this service that gives me pause, it's the service you're providing itself." To which I received, "We'd be happy to address any of your concerns. Please contact us and we can talk."
Can you imagine having a Twitter conversation like that with an elected official? It's creep-tastic. Direct message me, at least.
I know what I do online is very seldom "private" in the strictest sense these days, but just because I know that doesn't mean that's how it should be. Just because the Internet has a way of broadcasting and cataloguing infinite amounts of information doesn't mean that's its sole purpose or benefit to society. In fact, I think for many of us who came of age using the Internet these past 10 or 15 years, that aspect of the Internet has been less important than its ability to let us find and express free from immediate concerns that what we found and expressed would be forever attached to "who we are" in the world.
That said, I'm not retreating. I still believe the Internet has great reach and purpose. I just wish that those of who develop and utilize all of these exciting new tools could take the time to stop, reflect and ethicize about what we're doing without feeling shame or guilt or that we're necessarily being old-fashioned. I want queer kids to be able to vent their frustrations on a personal blog without their RSS feed being discovered by an information aggregating site!
Assumptions about the relative privacy and shelf life of our actions - online or otherwise - should be honored and respected. We may not be able to scrub the Internet of all we do, but we certainly don't have to participate in the acceleration of the demise of pseudo-privacy by embracing tools like Gist.
Look at it this way: just because I sit next to you on a train writing a letter to a friend doesn't mean you have a right to read over my shoulder, grab my arm and say, "Hey, I like what you said in the second paragraph there. Dustin, is that your name? I see it in the closing there. Cool, I'm going to quote you to all my friends."