A picture’s worth a thousand words – thoughts on internet privacy

Or, what happens when your face shows up on Cult of Mac.

Maybe you’ve heard about this app, Girls Around Me, that has been getting some attention recently for being, well, creeptastic. If you haven’t, let me Google that for you, because I’m not really interested in linking directly to John Brownlee’s post, the one on Gawker, or any of the other ones that people have linked me to since Friday.

Go ahead, pick an article, read up – I’ll wait.

So, turns out John lives in Boston and I’m guessing he spends some time writing over in my neck of the woods, because when he put together some screenshots for his post, my face ended up in one of them.


I first found out about this on Friday afternoon while I was finishing up lunch and getting ready for a conference call — a notification popped up that someone had mentioned me on Facebook. I went over to see what was up and found a link to the article, along with a message from a high school friend I hadn’t heard from in years, also pointing out the article.

I’ve gotten a number of messages, emails and texts since then, all from very well meaning people, most containing some version of the message: You’re in this creepy app! Check your privacy settings!

It looked a lot like Twitter DM spam, only it wasn’t. (Many thanks to my friend Sean for keeping things light and pointing out: at least it’s a good picture.)

My first reaction to this was, “I guess that’s what I get for checking in at my office.”

My second was, “wait, WHAT? What I get? For checking in at my office?”

Let me preface this by saying, yes, I think this is a creepy app, yes I’m glad that Foursquare revoked its API access, and yes, it has made me think long and hard about what value I find from using Foursquare publicly, and whether that’s “worth” whatever the trade offs are. For now, I’ve changed my settings on Foursquare to private, because I haven’t quite made up my mind.

On the one hand, I’ve made some Twitter-friends with people because we’ve both been checked in at the same concerts, and I’ve found it pretty useful at meetups and other social media conferences and events. On the other hand, mostly I just use it for myself, with a relatively small group of friends, so maybe there’s no reason to use it publicly.

I will say that the only “bad” thing that’s ever happened to me from using Foursquare publicly is that my face ended up in John’s article.

Here’s what’s getting at me though:

Moreover, the girls (and men!) shown in Girls Around Me all had the power to opt out of this information being visible to strangers, but whether out of ignorance, apathy or laziness, they had all neglected to do so. This was all public information.

That’s a quote from the Cult of Mac piece. And now I have a problem, because I’m not ignorant, apathetic, or lazy.

I’ve made a choice to participate publicly in the internet. I try to be careful about what I make accessible and what I share with everyone, and for the most part, I think I’ve found a balance that works pretty well for me. Have I slipped up? Sure. But, it’s important to me that I try out new tools and apps and that I understand how various social networks work, what features and functionality they have to offer. Some of that’s because I’m an information junkie, but mostly it’s because I’ve spent the past four years working in online community management and social media, so staying on top of this is pretty relevant to my career.

Now, I can understand why a lot of people don’t want to put any information out there about themselves, or why they only make it available to a select group of people. I also understand that you look at this app and the article and your first reaction is “Thank GOD he’s not talking about me.” I know when my friends and family reached out to me, it was only with the best intentions.

The whole tenor of this, however, has been that if you are in this app, if you have been posting information publicly, especially if you’re a woman, you’re doing something wrong. Shut it down, ladies – someone on the internet might see you. Kashmir Hill shares some good insight on this over at Forbes in her piece, “The Reaction to ‘Girls Around Me’ Was Far More Disturbing Than the ‘Creepy’ App Itself.”

This is where I get stuck. Checking in at your office, or a coffee shop, or The Independent (which is a great bar, by the way), whether publicly or not, doesn’t mean you’re “asking” to get stalked, or mugged, or anything else. People generally don’t ask for bad things to happen to them, and by and large, I don’t really believe anyone deserves to have something bad happen to them. At the same time, I don’t believe that most people are stalkers, or thieves, or otherwise out to do me harm, and the amount of mental energy necessary to view the world that way is quite simply more than I can spend.

Of course, I think it’s important to take precautions, to do what you need to do to feel safe when we live in a world that feels increasingly unsafe. But I also think it’s important to take a step back from time to time and think about what we’re actually saying. I couldn’t remove all the information about me on the internet if I wanted to, and it really wouldn’t be in my best interest to do that.

I don’t believe that having a public persona online needs to be a risky enterprise, and it seems like plenty of people are able to manage that without being attacked, stalked, or otherwise targeted. If we’re saying that’s only true for one half of the population, then I don’t think this is really a conversation about internet privacy as much as it’s a conversation about whether it’s safe to be a woman and live in public.

If the answer to that is “no”, then I think we’ve got bigger problems than ‘Girls Around Me.’

  • Senorwander

    If you met a creepy guy at a bar, would you take the time to have a long conversation and share some private information about yourself with him?

    As a man, I avoid creepy women.

    On the internet you don’t really have this option.

    It isn’t really comparable to wearing a burka. It is more comparable to deciding, as you go, whether you respect a person.

    If you seriously don’t mind all this public information out there, then go into a bar and share your age, name, high school, mother’s name, usual locations, home address, favorite bands, favorite book, favorite quotes and etc., with a creepy guy or girl( who may or may not be a stalker). Would you really do that? 

    Not paying attention to your privacy settings and being very careful, male or female, takes away that ability. You cannot turn away the creeps if you make private information public.

    It is not really a feminist issue, not if you are unwilling to share this information at a bar with a very creepy man or woman. On the internet, without privacy settings turned up high, you don’t have that privilege. 

    • Senorwander

      As one of my female friends pointed out, it wasn’t an article decrying victims, it was an article about how social networks are not trustworthy in that they do not put our privacy and safety as much of a priority.

  • Pingback: In which I defend ‘Girls Around Me’ and Public-By-Default in general « John Barrdear

  • guest

    “If we’re saying that’s only true for one half of the population,”
    We’re not. See icanstalku.com, pleaserobme.com etc. And these are sites whose purpose it it to make people aware of how much of their personal data is public, not meant to creep you out.

    We’re used to having a certain context to our actions/statements. Unfortunately, on the internet that context evaporates. As demonstrated by Girls near me app, and by any of these websites.

    The problem is not about one half of the population. The problem is that no individual can oversee the impact of any data made public anymore, as they are so easily combined. The issue is not that anyone is not “asking” for anything bad — the issue is that our estimates of (if you will) “how much” we’re “asking” for are worth zilch. Nada.
    To contrast: a shapely girl that goes out in a miniskirt, tight top and tight boots isn’t asking for anything. But she does have a certain understanding of the difference in impact compared to if she was wearing a burka.

    What I am saying is that on the Net, we basically don’t.

  • http://www.ericaricardo.com/ Erica

    … I’ma finish. My friend Joan passed along your post on Twitter! Great insights here. Thanks for sharing :)

  • http://www.ericaricardo.com/ Erica

    I don’t think this is really a conversation about internet privacy as
    much as it’s a conversation about whether it’s safe to be a woman and
    live in public.
    If the answer to that is “no”, then I think we’ve got bigger problems than ‘Girls Around Me.’

    Fuck Yeah Marie Connelly. My friend Joan passed along your

  • Emoon

    We do have bigger problems…because the reaction of too many people when a woman is stalked, mugged, sexually assaulted, etc. still focuses on what she did to “make herself a target” and not on what the stalker/attacker did to her.  When I was a child and teenager (longer ago than I want to think about, thanks)  all such events were automatically the woman’s fault:  she was out too late, she was in the wrong part of town, she was dressed wrong, she left a window open in the house, she was alone.  This attitude, which seemed to be decreasing, is increasing again in some segments of the population.  

    Internet privacy (or non-privacy) just offers another way for women to be held responsible for the misdeeds of others.   Those who were early adopters of internet privacy concerns are quick to criticize those who (being even earlier adopters of the internet) didn’t start with those concerns, and those now who don’t fully understand them–or whose jobs require a certain level of disclosure.

  • http://twitter.com/agouty Andrew Gouty

    I think you’re spot on with notion that there is a larger issue at hand. The idea of private vs public information isn’t particularly the issue, so long as we’re worried about what people (a particular subset, stalkers in this case) do with that information.

    The starting point of the discussion seems to be paranoia, so long as we don’t set specific examples to be such. Gladly, in this case it seems not, until someone pipes up about being stalked from that application or others which publicly display information.

    I think its good that the public has had the reaction that it has, rather than wait for negative results, but even that can go too far in labeling benign data sharing (not saying that ‘Girls Around Me’ is) as nefarious.

  • http://twitter.com/maxfenton Max Fenton

    Well said.

  • Pingback: One Of The 'Girls Around Me' Denies Being Ignorant, Apathetic or Lazy - Forbes

  • http://rachelnabors.com Rachel Nabors

    I think if anything, this app was a wake up call to be more wary of confidence men and where your information can show up. I shared the original article with my fan base (via Facebook no less) because I worried they might not realize how exposed they actually are. 

    I know my information is sprayed across the Internet. I expect people to know me, my birthday, and where I was born, possibly even my mother’s name. Half the “secret answer” questions on any credit card site could be answered with a google search on my name! I know this. But others may be less aware that Facebook and Foursquare aren’t just apps on your phone. They’re APIs. And information that goes into APIs comes out of APIs in the strangest of places. 

    But you bring up some good points. The phrasing in that article is off. Why wasn’t there any shaming for the kind of guys who would abuse this sort of thing? Why do we, as women, have to hide under a digital burkah? 

    • Senorwander

      Wasn’t it shaming men by pointing out 1) men thought it was funny; and 2) women should be wary because men are the ones most likely to abuse this app and behave in a creepy manner? 

      ~ a man

    • guest

      The phrasing of the article made me reach out to people I care about, to warn them. The author called it creepy, and managed to convey that feeling. My takeaway from the article was not that women need to hide under digital burkahs. My takeaway was that if you’re not hiding (irrespective of gender), you’re public. And public data can be automatically aggregated in scary ways.

    • Tarnakk4

      Perhaps this view is overly simplistic, but there seem to me to be three problems driving issues like this. 

      1 – We live in a society that publicly and legally offers different rights to different people. For some, that will always be an excuse to pick out (or on) elements they have a personal like or dislike for.

      2 – We are not all the same. People need to learn that while we should all have the same rights, we all have different needs, and that’s ok. Who would want to live in a totally homogenized country where we all were exactly the same? Diversity, as a rule, makes a culture stronger than amalgamation.

      3 – The Information Age is proving to be more of a challenge and redefinition of our culture than anyone could ever have expected. New development and business models for art, science, and technology are warring with new crimes in fraud, theft, and abuse. We have yet to strike a happy balance in these issues. Chances are, the balance will leave people more exposed, and in some ways more connected than they used to be. The goal isn’t to fear this change, but to adapt to this new direction in a way that makes people feel safe.

  • Rosalie K

    Excellent piece. I tend to opt out of Foursquare etc, but you’ve got me thinking twice about why – is it because I prefer to be more private, or is it because I feel like I need to take precautions? I don’t have a problem being careful, but I do have a problem with limiting myself out of fear. I’ll definitely think more about this. Love!