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Thursday 2 October 2014

Privacy online: How to avoid friends and irritate people

An online revolution is at last prioritising privacy over technological intrusion and the introvert over the extrovert, writes Ed Power

Published 24/06/2014 | 02:30

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Parents can now police their children's smartphones

The internet was created to bring people together. True, we have largely used our togetherness to share cat videos and rant at one another on message boards. Nonetheless, who could dispute that the web has made the world feel smaller, cosier, chattier?

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But what if cosy and chatty are your idea of purgatory? An estimated one-third of the population is thought to be along the spectrum of introversion – that is, they find others ultimately exhausting to be around, would much rather be left to their own, idiosyncratic devices. What is the internet doing to make their lives better?

More than you would think, it transpires. While social networking behemoths such as Facebook and Twitter encourage us to be extroverts, lately the technology sector has become alive to the fact that not everyone is an endlessly blabbing exhibitionist.

Leading the charge (though perhaps it would be better described as diffident shuffle) is Cloak, a mobile device application that mines sites such as Facebook, Foursquare and Instagram to warn you whenever 'friends' are nearby. For those of a grumpy persuasion, it is a gift from Olympus: with a choice of four Starbucks to pop into, you can now avoid the one where your boss/ex/boss-you-snogged-that-one-time is glugging on a caramel latté. This is what microprocessors were invented for.

"I think that the age of mass social networking has reached its peak, at least for us first-worlders," according Cloak's co-creator Chris Baker (also founder of top 10 list conveyor belt Buzzfeed).

"Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are public arenas where we cultivate versions of ourselves that are well-manicured, mostly false and always 'on'. I think that is what's beginning to wane. We're exhausted from it and by it," Baker said.

"Social networking has got to a stage where we have all realised this is just too much. We need to regain control over our lives," said Udi Dagan, creator of a similar app called Split.

"The virtual world and the real world – it's all a mix and it's becoming overwhelming. So we will see more and more technology that will help us reclaim our space and create a necessary separation."

Often the first to latch on to a trend, celebrities have whinged about the asphyxiating qualities of social networking for some time now. Writer Jonathan Franzen warned Twitter could spell the death of the novel (with the option of watching Nicki Minaj and Azealia Banks fling mud in 140 character bursts, who has space in their lives for literature).

His compatriot Zadie Smith, at Harvard when Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook in 2003 agrees, says "When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks."

Actress Emma Thompson has gone even further, she believes that Twitter has created a generation of "Lemmings", whom she half expects to jump en masse off a cliff at the age of 60.

"I'd rather have root canal treatment for the rest of my life than join Twitter. That's not my scene at all. I can't bear the thought of being connected all the time. God knows what it's all doing to us," said Thompson.

Though it's the cheerleaders and critics of social media who inevitably commandeer the spotlight, the truth is that most of us are somewhere in-between. We understand it is possible to re-tweet a friend's joke or 'like' a Facebook posting without losing our identity to the internet hive-mind.

At the same time it fills us with unease and pity to see people living vicariously online, creating artificial personalities that may bear passing resemblance to who they are in flesh-and-blood (just as it galls us to see them parlay their fake selves into actual prominence and success, their careers built on sand and retweets).

Happily, for those in the middle, there are new services such as Anomo, a social networking site that lets users control how much information they wish to share up front.

"If you go on Facebook or Twitter, it's really all about image management now – it's not a place to have real authentic conversations," Anomo co-founder James Sun said recently.

"Today's social networks like Tinder or Facebook say that as soon as you sign up you have to tell the whole world about you. But we don't think that's how it works in the real world. You don't meet somebody and tell them everything about yourself on day one. You get to know them, you gradually reveal information."

He's right: maybe it's time we brought some caution and perspective to the virtual realm.

Not everyone needs to be the life of the party.

And it seems the tech sector is waking up to that.

Irish Independent

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