Just the other day, the thing I heard before going to sleep was a stranger saying: “guess what?” — and then I just sort of moaned feigning interest, actually tired and disappointed, as she continued — “I know where you live”. Before I could answer her, despite the numbness that we all feel once exposed to a kind of behavior that aims at your vulnerabilities to attack everything about you that, supposedly, people know very well, she disappeared. I’d debated this two years ago, with a student of mine: I was suggesting to him that the experience of talking to new people would be good to practice language skills, and I remember saying I’d found a browser extension that could identify the location of the person interacting with you, on the same specific “random chat” site where the girl came from — there are many instances of random chats today. He’s a CEO of a company working in development tools, so his advice was to definitely use it; I didn’t want to, but then the conversations changed a bit. Chatrooms; quick contacts who just met exchanging all sorts of messages; cameras on, off, or covered with something: it doesn’t matter. People are starting to say things because they think they should react in new ways to these “old people” on the internet disturbing their experience. But we want details.
Research in the UK, published by Ofcom (the British Office of Communications, run by government) shows that 187 thousand people visited Omegle in September 2021. You’d wonder if they made categories of interactions and built response strategies, which is doubtful, if you think about education. But there’s much more interesting stuff on the study, the “Online Nation Report 2022“: it says that users spent an average of 4 hours online, which seems like way too little; but doing what? And then we learn that 42 minutes are spent on Meta platforms (and several major companies are listed) while 1 hour and 45 minutes are spent on “others”. But what do you mean with “others”? Needless to say but valid to stress, it becomes hard to initiate dialogue on sensitive topics, if that becomes the main issue, hypothetically. Further, when the question is if you “feel free to be yourself online”, the answer is only 36% of them do. That is very revealing and should be a reason for major concern — seemingly, it’s not. When the question is if they can “share opinions and have a voice”, only 12% strongly agree, versus 6% who strongly disagree — you see, because free speech wins. The study also says that, by a small margin, “content harms” are a bigger problem (reported by 46% of people) than “contact harms” (45% point to this as the main issue); the “commercial harm” seems to pose a smaller risk (34% are worried about it). This could lead to important policy decisions, as the data is revealing only the direct response triggered by a question with a purpose; it doesn’t investigate how much teens and young adults, for example, know about the roles of advertising in the media they consume all day. Another very important finding shows that the risks of being online are, for 27% of people, “scams, fraud and phishing” (27% of users experienced that in 2021), while the big problem of the last decade, the “unwanted sexual message”, was cited by only 8%. And back to the first theme, but focusing on the other side, Ofcom says that 60% of women had experienced trolling, compared to 25% of men. If anyone still has doubts that Meta is the moderation champion of the internet, it matters to say that the study also found that 87% of adults use their communications platforms, WhatsApp being the most popular. But isn’t WhatsApp encrypted?
Women have a right to act they way they feel like. But on the internet, things got a little complicated when the new goal was to protect every woman from every harm, while not letting them speak about their possible benefits. Of course, you won’t see on this website an account of women organized to attack men because of their appearance, their financial means, their opinions and how they’ve articulated them; but that is a generous posture which acknowledges that the harms are real, I’m concerned with them, but it’s also undeniable that people, regardless of their gender (or sexual orientation, which should be free from judgment in the society we visualized long ago), want to experience the benefits of interactions with the opposing sex, and feel free to explore those. It turns out that when you have a constant state of vigilante culture acting on people’s subconscious, a woman feels entitled to say she knows where I live, while I’m supposed to be aware that this is probably because she’s received threats (whether on Snapchat or email, at school or wherever it was), most likely from men, and decided to fight back. But she also decided to say this to me, a blogger constantly posting about security in apps that track geolocation. For a woman on the internet, it’s acceptable to post a long Twitter thread saying that she got heavily monitored by her abusive boss, and maybe one time, when she had just finished listening to her favorite album, which reminded her of the beautiful relationship she had with the man she thought she was going to marry, but received a job proposal abroad and decided to move, a co-worker asked about him on WhatsApp, while she wasn’t even done sobbing to the soundtrack. All normal, nothing dystopian.
I just thought, maybe because of where I interacted with this person, that she was a troll. An article from the Atlantic suggests that the way to deal with trolls is to just ignore them; it also makes comments on anonymity, saying one should take responsibility for their words and actions, shedding light on the fact that online trolls are typically also offline trolls. While the psychological analysis might be more difficult to do, it’s a point to start: we’d like to preserve our reputation, and wouldn’t want other people finding out that we behave in a way seen mostly as negative; but we also learn, as the vehicle reminds us on a different linked story, that certain users are rewarded for abusive behavior, given the engagement they produce. The more pernicious, possibly non-complacent discussions are related to the not yet reported uses of the internet: if calling someone a bitch is light injury, sometimes even friendly, then what happens when you go down, and then keep going? Abusive behavior is called that because it exhibits a pattern, not seen as an isolated event, and context matters a lot — that’s why we have moderators, surveillance tools and the police itself, if you extend that to a more general view of abuse and violence, whether it’s discourse or action. But we’re navigating a dangerous path by attempting to market globalized postures and lifestyles in a world that will inevitably reject certain postures and lifestyles, for certain people.
It becomes relevant, if not top priority, to think about your own security. And many have said that we are carrying tracking devices in our pockets. This blog has alerted to this feature being used for malicious purposes, and also disclosed that security questions can force unwanted disclosures, when attention seems to be scaling up while it shouldn’t — and while it’s a user’s right, when it’s every user’s right, to have control over how data is processed and used. If every business had to worry about people coming into their workplace and wanting to steal something, nobody would do business. If every man or woman, young or old, had to worry about who might have access to their location and for what purpose they’d use this information, they’d certainly be less likely to go out at all. And while doing that, they’d be more careful about home office, which is what every company praised, with little training on best practices and, in my experience, a message “not to worry” about security or even bother that a certain tool was not accessible via Chrome, for instance, while Firefox made it possible. To put the blame in the companies that didn’t care for security configurations is to ask too much from people who have to worry about that in their own lives, and are trying to preserve an array of interoperations that requires strategic planning and clear policies. Facebook shows you every device you’re logged in from; them and Twitter, along with other companies, notify new logins via email, unless you opt out. These are ways of protecting users; but somehow, when we review our activity, there are logins we weren’t notified of. Then we have to ask: is it Google?
Google gave us pretty much everything we needed, and we’re not thankful enough. An entire generation grew up with the privilege of knowing the answer to a question simply by typing (or even asking out loud, after clicking an icon on the screen) what they wanted to know so badly. Our contacts are stored on our Android devices, the most popular operational system for smartphones in the world. We have documents, plenty of tools and YouTube alone could make us busy, entertained and inspired for as long as we need to, and more than that: the experience can get better based on how much we interact, giving feedback in the form of likes, comments and shares. But when it comes to our identification, it seems that there are things we don’t want people to know. Maybe I wouldn’t tell my Tinder date the song that made me cry the most this year, maybe I would; but definitely not my employer. In turn, I wouldn’t like my working buddies or my clients to know that I just checked in at this motel, and two phones were placed side by side. Unfortunately, this is where technology led us, and social media can mean one thing on the surface while it means another on a deeper level, where every step is analyzed. Without GPS, Uber wouldn’t exist. But whether location history can be used in creative ways instead of a surveillance tool (which has a clear, but debatable purpose when you think about minors, for example) is still something we can only hope for when we think of advertising, accepting that connectivity invites us to take more chances in life, instead of being enclosured in the same space for years on, waiting on a better life and the help of some divine entity to bring change for the better. Curiously, that might make us look onto the future we want, and the future we’ll actually have — in ways we’ll have to deal with more maturely than we currently are, for a better harmony in society.