Saturday, 18 July 2009

On the Internet nobody knows who you are - or do they?

I have just returned from a holiday in Venice. Amongst other sites, I visited the original Jewish ghetto - the Venetians created the concept centuries before the Nazis (in 1516). For Venetian Jews the ghetto was both a good thing and a bad thing. It was bad because of course it created segregation between Jews and the rest of the (mainly Catholic) population.

But actually the Jews tended to live together anyway, in separate communities; so this was not too harsh a limitation. It was also bad because Jews were not allowed to own land or property, so they had to rent from their Venetian landlords. It was also bad because at night they were "shut in" - no Jew (apart from physicians) was allowed to leave the ghetto, and non non-Jew could enter. But there were positives: the Jews were allowed to trade freely. Because they were not allowed to own land or property, they specialised in areas that didn't need these attributes - learned pursuits like doctors and writers - and also banking and money lending. In fact the word usury derives from the Italian. So, actually, does the word ghetto. The Italian original "getto" (with a soft g) simply meant foundry, and the Jews were settled on a site called the "old getto" or old foundry (where there had been manufacturing). The Ashkenazy Jews who moved in from eastern Europe used a hard g, hence "ghetto" - and the word eventually came to mean what we know it for today. Although the Venetian ghetto was crowded, it wasn't repressive. The Jews established synagogues (there are five) and had their own schools, butchers, bakeries, etc.. And as noted above, could freely conduct business. In fact the site became so popular that Jews from France and Spain (Sephardic Jews) also came to live there and the original ghetto had to be expanded - confusingly onto a site called the "new getto" (new foundry) - hence the oldest part is on the new ghetto and the newest part is on the old ghetto!

Why am I writing this in a blog that's mainly about social media? Because it struck me that one of the things that social media can do is free us of these kinds of restrictions. You have probably heard the saying "on the Internet nobody knows you're actually a dog" - well simply replace that with Jew (or Muslim, or Bhuddist, or whatever). Even if you label yourself as such, does that guarantee you are who you say you are? (I'll return to that point shortly). So it's a medium that can free us up from these prejudices. When we "meet" online, we tend to swap information about our interests and ideas - and form alliances accordingly. This can cut across the religious, racial, gender, sexuality and other prejudices. One of the best illustrations of this is Facebook groups: people join a group because they share an interest. The group might be about the singer Taylor Swift or the actor Robert Pattinson. It's very unlikely those people will actually visit the group (or if they do, interact with it) - but actually that's not the point: the people in the group can share their interest in those celebrities and create a community. There is no enforced segregation, and the limits that do occur are self-imposed: i.e. the interest of the group dictates its membership.

This is a good thing about social media. It allows you to make friends with people who you might never otherwise meet or get to know, and, as I noted above, cuts across the prejudices that can cause division.

There is a downside though. I hinted earlier that people can pretend to be something they are not. Here's an example: Jimmy Page on Twitter. He has 1755 followers (as of 18 July 2009) and is following 2001 people. This is supposedly the Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. But somehow I doubt it. Would he really have time to follow 2001 people? And several of the postings are guitar tutorials by other people: does the legendary guitarist really post about that? This may be relatively harmless, but the worst extreme is seen in cyber-stalking, especially those who frequent young people's chat rooms and masquerade as young people (or sympathetic adults) when actually they are grooming for evil intent.

And going back to Twitter - on the face of it, Twitter seems like a wonderful thing: people sharing their short (though not always pithy) thoughts with their friends (followers) in a completely public fashion so anyone can dip in to read the "conversations". But if these conversations are real and not made up, then people can build amazingly detailed profiles about the Tweeters. Company sales departments ought to be rubbing their hands with glee! Here's an example. I flew to Venice with Swiss Airlines - so if I was a Tweeter (I'm not, before you go check) - I might post my experiences about the airline. And indeed people have done so: here are some Twitter examples:

"swiss international airlines's web check-in fails to display boarding card. d'oh" from DrWho

"Waiting in Zurich int'l a'port. 47.5hrs flight time plus transit in last 1.5 weeks. Swiss Air food 4 out of 5. American Airlines 0 out of 5" from SharePointMan

"1D away for the 5-day-work-week plan. (Swiss Airlines may go to hell with 8 types of meal they let u choose and just slow prices down!)" from Rendez

We talk and write a lot about identity theft and Internet safety - yet by choosing to publish out thoughts in this very public manner, are we not just asking for trouble?

I started out by writing about how social media can free us up from some of the worst aspects of human prejudice. But "buyer beware" - we may be just replacing it with something that could be abused in just the same way. Those who saw the recent BBC TV Torchwood mini-series "Children of Earth" can consider the example of the thoughts of the politicians as they decide how to choose 10% of their children (I won't say what for). Well social media provides a perfect tool for making these kind of choices!

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