Privacy and the unobserved web

There’s a bit of a flap going on in Social Media. (But then, it’s the internet; there’s always a flap going on. They’re like flame wars, but bigger and generally with better punctuation.) This flap has to do with Google sort of botching the roll-out of Google Plus, specifically when it comes to using “real” names versus pseudonyms.

Well, this isn’t about that. But it is related. Today’s topic is Observation. More specifically, being observed.

Being Observed

Let me start with an example. If you’re like most people, you habitually speed when you drive on the highway. It’s the communal default. Going the speed limit on Route 128 causes serious social friction, even if you do it in the right lane. You’re conscious that you are breaking the law even though you are not breaking custom.

And then you see a cop by the side of the road

And your pulse quickens, even though you’re in a pack of people all of whom are doing 65 in a 55, and if anyone’s getting pulled over it’s that idiot in the left lane doing 85. But the cop pulls out into traffic, and sits behind you. And despite doing NOTHING wrong you are now all “both hands on the steering wheel!”, and signaling everything, and “why hello good fellow, of course you may have all the room in the world despite cutting me off and flipping me the bird”.

Let me give you another example. You’re in your bedroom, and it’s rather warm; the AC isn’t working. So, you take off your shirt, and begin to get ready for bed. But suddenly, you feel eyes on the back of your neck. You look over, and realize that despite living on the second floor, a man in the street is peering up into your window. Or maybe he’s just looking at the stars. Either way you fumble with the blinds and curtains, and try to regain some privacy–despite belatedly realizing that his other hand is clutching a white cane, and he’s not seeing anything at all.

You’re in a bookstore, trying to see if anything looks interesting. You realize the clerk is looking at you. What does he want? Do you look like you’re dawdling? What if he asks you what you’re looking for? Suddenly, it becomes very hard to simply browse the shelves; your ease is gone.

You’re taking a snowboarding class–you’ve always wanted to learn, and enjoy skiing. But it’s all different; you can’t walk at all, and you keep falling. The instructor is helping, but the person that *isn’t* helping is that 14 year old who just flew in on his snowboard, who is now standing there gawking at how clumsy you’re being. With him watching, you can’t seem to un-tense enough to even process what the instructor is telling you.

You’re at a party with some friends, playing a great game of Settlers of Catan. You look up, halfway through getting some wood for your sheep, and realize that one of your opponents has pulled out his camera and is pointing it at you. Suddenly you’re thinking about posture, about the expression on your face, about anything but the game.[2]

These examples permeate our lives. For some people, they are no problem at all; for others, they can be truly crippling. But for everyone, being observed changes our behavior.

The practice of being observed

The great Stanislavski, creator of the so-called “Stanislavski system” for acting, gave his classes a simple exercise: read the newspaper[3]. Each student, in turn, had to read the newspaper, sitting in a chair in the middle of the stage, while the rest of the class watched him or her intently.

This is harder than it sounds. Try it! Suddenly, you begin to second-guess every motion. Did that page turn look too affected? Did I really read that article convincingly? My nose itches–is it more natural to use my left hand or right hand to scratch it? And what do I do with the paper while I scratch? Fluent activities break down, and become challenges.

Of course the actors were learning to retain their poise and ease even when observed. But the simple fact is, most of us never go through that training, and even the best actors never feel completely the same observed as unobserved.

Being observed changes behavior. Even when we’re not doing anything “wrong”. Studies have shown that even the hint of being observed is enough to change behavior–for example, having a person’s face in the menu bar makes people use a computer differently. Even a cartoon face. Even just a pair of eyes.

Common Courtesy

The problem is that sometimes it’s hard to prevent being observed. On the train, for example. Or even in your own home; people who pass by *can* see you, unless you have very effective blinds. In an office bathroom, even with stalls providing a pretense of visual privacy, people can hear each other, and smell each other; a closeness that perhaps they didn’t want to share.

So we, as a society, have created by mutual agreement a certain layer of courtesy. We pretend we’re not observing; and the observed get some reinforcement in pretending that they are not being observed. A person walking down the street past that un-shuttered second-floor window might notice a person taking off their shirt, and, exercising prudence, continue walking–rather than stopping and staring[4]. On the train, especially in crowded metro areas, there is a code about not staring at other people, even unintentionally, and it is enforced with brusque body language and eye contact.

There’s a pretense of the invisible bubble of privacy.

Why a pretense? Because it’s useful. Because it lets us survive living in a dense fashion without the constant burden of being observed. Sure, we could all lock ourselves in black insulated sound-proof containers when we needed a little unobserved time–but who carries around a giant black box? Plus, everyone would be looking at your black box, wondering why you needed to be in there right now.

Interestingly to me, I see that people are locking themselves in those black boxes, more and more. Wearing headphones in public, which used to be an enormous faux pas and considered quite rude, is now a commonplace sight–and headphones are a way of giving other people audio privacy (as well as a way to listen to music and/or block out the din of city life). Cars have become insular, with amazing sound reduction inside, climate control–true Bat Caves on wheels. Even the house is getting more cut off–blackout shades, basement entertainment centers with surround sound and noise insulation and steel shutters.

I think these are responses to people not following the rules of Common Courtesy; we are in a downward spiral of respect of boundaries, an arms race between the observed and themselves.

Privileged Spaces

There’s another way to look at this common courtesy, namely, the Privileged Space. In certain spaces, certain additional rules apply. These are codified as law in some cases (a “Reasonable Expectation Of Privacy” applies, for example, in your own home, in a hotel room, or in a restroom; this mostly has to do with legitimate collection of evidence; however, invasion of privacy may be interpreted more broadly).

But there are also ad hoc versions of this. “Girl’s night”, stereotypical as it is, is one example: women getting together to discuss things that couldn’t be discussed if they were observed by certain other people. For folks who need this space, it lets them simply revel in the unburdened ability to behave how they would like, in the absence of certain types of observation.

The privileged space–and speech–in a therapist or analyst’s care is crucial for proper functioning of the therapy. The kid’s tree house, the chat in the boss’s office, the quiet time out for drinks with a half-dozen baseball buddies: these all serve useful purposes.

Informal space

There are less-formal privileged spaces as well. While these spaces can, practically, be intruded upon, it is morally reprehensible to do so. If two people are having a heart to heart at the end of the bar, about her miscarriage and his gambling problem, well, you leave those people alone–and even if you can clearly hear what they’re saying, you don’t butt in, or you’re some kind of a dick. It’s become a privileged space, and they have a reasonable expectation of some common courtesy.

(Of course you can hear them. That’s not the point. And there are rules for the speakers as well; if you’re having a big fight in the middle of a crowded restaurant, you’re causing a scene–not just because you’re disrupting conversations around you, but because the people around you have a hard time maintaining the pretence.)

Rules are different in these spaces (though laws may not be, and this causes serious problems). For example, in that bar room, you can swear to your heart’s content, and make fun of your friends, and tell ribald jokes–perhaps you’ll even be teased if you don’t. Doing any of those things in an office will cause serious problems.

But no reasonable person will hold you to the standards of one place in another place; it’s a mismatch, like a librarian appearing out of nowhere and telling someone “sssh! quiet!” in the middle of a baseball stadium. And that’s good, because just like we need our unobserved time; we need our privileged spaces.

The Internet, a flat space if we aren’t careful

When no one was really paying attention, along came the internet.[5] On the internet, version 1.0, you could post stuff! Like, Usenet comments. (And later, blog posts.) And people could read them. Then they would respond. And other people could see it all. This is like being observed–but you could turn it off quite easily. When you weren’t posting, you weren’t observable. It was similar to, say, showing up at the local pub and engaging in a political debate or public trollery. Sure, you might end up with a bloody nose for your troubles, but you also could leave the bar, and not come back.

Then, we started to have ‘homes’ on the internet. Websites. Personal blogs. MySpaces. Facebook walls. Places which were, in a real sense, a place where we hung our hat. And we let our hair down there a little bit–trusting in common courtesy. And in the main, this worked; but then some griefer realized, “Hey, I can see your Wall, and I can pull out embarrassing things and share them out of context.” And suddenly, the privacy walls have to go up, and we all lock down our Facebooks, and yank our MySpaces, and angst about whether our employer saw that picture of us doing a keg stand over that half-naked girl.

(Because of course that employer has *never* done something silly like doing a keg stand over a half-naked girl, oh, no, of course not.)

What’s gone on here is a disruption of common courtesy. Something that occurred in a privileged space has been brought into a different context. A reasonable employer would look at the picture and think, “Hmm. Keg stand at a party. Not relevant to this work context.” Because it isn’t; it can’t be judged in the context of a work situation. Now, if you came in to work drunk, or claimed you were out sick while doing that keg stand in the middle of the afternoon–now you’re lying, and about work matters, and those are relevant factors. But to be judged for off-duty behavior is simply…rude.[6]

Then, along comes a new wave. Web 2.0. Suddenly, our minute-to-minute lives are being uploaded where they can be observed. We tweet our breakfast cereal, we check in from the coffee shop on the way to work, we gripe about how slow our computer is in the morning, we tag our friends in pictures and FourSquare ourselves all over the map. We share; and others see.

The Case Of The Missing Context[7]

But something’s missing: context. Context for the observers. What’s strange about these sharing channels is that by and large they are organized by application, not by context. For example: if you use FourSquare, then people who follow you there can see all the places you check in. If you use Facebook Messenger, and you forgot to uncheck “share my location”, then everyone in the chat knows precisely where you’ve been every time you say anything.

But that doesn’t really make sense. Without context, people don’t know what social rules to ascribe to things; and you don’t know what social rules you’ll be judged under. You have no support framework; you’re on that stage, reading the newspaper, while the world stares at you.

What you want is for your work-type friends to be able to see the ‘work’-type places you go–so they can see when you’re going to make it to that off-site meeting, or whatever. You want your, let’s say, pub-type friends to be able to see the bar you’re heading to after this one. (And you sure as hell want them to see that you’ve become Mayor of your favorite hangouts–those poor saps will take weeks to catch you!)

Instead we get a big undifferentiated pile of…stuff. Twitter is a great example of this; it’s part good, part bad, and definitely requires a readjustment of perceptions. A quick sample of my twitter feed nets: A public book review, a link to a ‘work’ product, a note that someone is going out to the movies, a complaint about a TV show, a PR blurb, a shared private moment between father and son, reactions to a baseball game, and notice of a family emergency. All jammed together into one window! No wonder people aren’t sure what social rules to use.

And once you add in griefers–people who purposely break the rules to cause discomfort, for their own gratification–things get even worse. “Woo! Fat chicks!” “Your wrong. I know because I heard it happened differently once.” “Great post–for a girl.” “I cc’d that heart-felt post you wrote about your dog dying to all your ex-coworkers and they thought it was hilarious!” Whatever.

And so we drop to lowest common denominator: we post pablum. We act ‘publicly’, there on the stage, trying to pretend to read a newspaper.

And it can really hurt our ability to form deep connections, or have meaningful conversations, because at any moment we must be looking over our shoulder for that contextless person, or that mugger. We can’t ever make it into the house to talk; we’re always stuck in the middle of the road outside, with a swarm of passers-by flowing around us and occasionally intruding on our conversation.


It doesn’t have to be this way. Over on my other blog, on a private blogging site that understands the value of private spaces, this isn’t the case. I can define privileged spaces, and I can invite people to join them. Yes, our host (the blogging service) is listening in; that’s unavoidable, and over the years they have proven to be respectful of privacy, some missteps notwithstanding.

And as a result, I have had many deep and meaningful conversations there; I have formed fast friends; I fell in love with my fiancee largely after getting to know her through her own past blog history, thoughts and feelings. I have worked through psychological issues, both my own and others; I have enlisted the aid of close friends and even some acquaintances to help me grieve my father’s death.

More importantly, I can feel ‘safe’ there.


Time was, if you wanted to read a book, you pulled one off the shelf and read it. While you were reading the book, it wasn’t reading you; it was a book.

Now, you’re observed all the time. If you go to a website, the website is watching you. This has been true for some time–all http servers keep logs and record IP addresses–but the difference is what’s being done with that information, and when. The benign forms of observation are things like the NY Times’ “recommended for you” feature, which tracks what articles you read and suggests things in the same sections.

A downright creepy version is Facebook’s targeted advertising, which mines your user data (age, gender, relationship status) and presents you with ‘custom’ ads. (One woman fought back; watch the video for more details.) But even more annoying was a website I visited. After a minute of looking through their inventory, a frame popped up in the middle of my browser window, with a customer service rep in it. “Can I help you find something? I’m here to help. I see you looking at chisels….are you a woodworker?[8]”

AUGHH! It was as if someone had teleported into the middle of my bedroom. I was in my underwear, for crying out loud. I was not up to even giving him the rote “I’m just looking” response. Suddenly, the web–the book–was watching ME, demanding attention, activating the ‘social’ frame when I was in the middle of the ‘solo’ frame. My bubble of privacy was pierced; my privileged space suddenly wasn’t one. Needless to say I adblocked the frame and the script; but that’s an advanced maneuver, unavailable to most folks on the web.

And there are subtler, more pernicious examples. Facebook tracks you everywhere you surf, anywhere that has a “Like” button; Google+ does the same with that insidious +1 button. Great, so Google knows where you’ve been; that’s one level of intrusion. If they share that information with the website–if Merchant X knows that the person who is showing up is a 30-mumble white male named Alex–then that’s a serious privacy violation too. If they post it to your wall, that’s a third level, though they bill it as a “feature”: not only do you like Spongebob, but we’ll tell ALL your friends that you do! In fact, we’ll tell everyone who likes Spongebob, too! Now we’re straying pretty far into over-sharing.

Can’t I support something without having to wear my Thing Supporter Shirt whenever I am in public? No, and according to Facebook, you also have to sign up for their newsletter as well, and agree to be spammed by them and by anyone else who likes them. No wonder I don’t ‘Like’ very much stuff; what was intended as a private, directed conversation is now a public, multi-way event, a communication orgy when all we wanted was a quiet dinner.

It’s wearying. When you surf, now, you are observed. If you’re technically savvy like me, you realized that a long time ago. But it’s getting worse–much worse[9].

Most recently, I noticed that WordPress is doing a variant on this–if I go to any WordPress-hosted site, I get logged in as my WP identity. Well, that’s great, I guess, except…I don’t really need to be “Alex Feinman” when I’m reading I Can Haz Cheezeburger. In fact, I’d rather not be; I’d rather just be a faceless, nameless observer. I don’t comment–haven’t commented in the 2-3 years I’ve been looking at silly pictures of cats with captions on them. So it is intrusive for me to be ‘recognized’ when I’m there. I’d rather just breeze on through, like an anonymous shopper at a store.

Instead, I am acutely aware that the site is almost certainly logging my every move, which pictures I click on, when I visit. It’s not just the use of the information I object to–though that’s a battle worth fighting–it’s the involuntary tying together of multiple parts of my life, and the constant reminder that we’re being watched.

Be seeing you.

[1] There is no footnote number 1. Completionist.
[2] And if you’re like me, about the lighting, and f-stop, and depth of field, and…
[3] This anecdote is from “An Actor Prepares”.
[4] The immature thing to do, of course, would be to stop and gawk. Or to take pictures, and put them up on the internet. This is taboo for a reason; it’s harassment, and in the extreme case, it ruins lives or ends them.
[5] Note: I love the internet. This isn’t a complaint about the internet.
[6] This battle gets fiercer for people like high school teachers, whose personal lives are somehow required to be spotless, lest they corrupt the youth or some such; recently there have been some unfortunate cases where folks have gotten fired for having their own lives in their off hours.
[7] The Blood Hound Gang are on the case.
[8] I don’t actually recall what the website was.
[9] I have been using various browser extensions to limit the amount of cross-site traffic and tracking that web pages do of me, and it makes me aware of, for example, how many websites use Google Analytics to track my motion around their site. (Or would, if I didn’t use RequestPolicy to block this.)


8 thoughts on “Privacy and the unobserved web

  1. This is an interesting essay, certainly food for thought. I consider the web in general a public space. There are no companies I trust well enough to believe that they will keep what I’m doing online private. I assume that government authorities could take that data, and I assume hackers can get in and take the private data anywhere basically. I assume anything I put in writing on the web has the potential to be copy and pasted elsewhere. I’m not sure that my privacy has been ebbed away further with these changes or not. I’m choosing to be in the public spaces more. There was a time when I believed that I could be private on the net, but I was delusional about that. My first blog for instance, I did not use my real full name. That was over 10 years ago, which in net times a lifetime. I was not posting anything that needed privacy really, I just never allowed my real name to be seen. It felt safer.

    People have a right to use pseudonyms on the web, people who are on the web using a pseudonym for safety though are taking a huge risk. It is like encrypting things to keep them safe, it is begging for wiki leaks to find way around the locks. My mother always said that locks only keep your friends out which is probably also true for encryption.

    All of that said, however, I still feel I can have meaningful relationships with people. I usually take those conversations off of the public sphere, blogs, twitter, facebook. I talk privately with people, use IRC chat etc. It can still be logged by authorities, but I doubt I’m really that interesting, If I was, I probably would not even do that much over the net. I played an online game where politics played a big part, and I’ve seen whole “private” conversations published in public spaces by someone who betrayed their trust. So I’m cognizant that it is extremely important to only put things in writing carefully. People who have wanted to could always track people, listen into their conversations, tap their phones, bug their houses, follow them, read their mail, pay their friends/families to betray them, snoop around their homes when they were out. Were our lives with others really that private if someone WANTED to find out?

    When they start being able to read the thoughts in my head, I think I will have become too old for the world.

  2. This is interesting stuff, but I wonder if part of what’s going on with “like” and “+1” is a mismatch in expectations. It took me to figure out what “like” was even supposed to do, but now that I’ve seen that stuff I “like” ends up on my wall, I conclude that it’s supposed to operate as a signal-booster for important posts and articles that I think should be read more widely, similar to Reddit “up-votes.” This may not be exactly what the user imagines the button should do, but it doesn’t seem like all that important a feature for general communications anyway. If you don’t like it, you can just not use it.

    More annoying is having “comments” broadcast out, because there *are* plenty of reasons that you might want to comment on something without having *everyone* you know see your thoughts on that subject. On the other hand, I try not to use Facebook and Google+ as privileged spaces anyway. When I post something personal there, it’s generally pretty innocuous. I have other forums for the more private stuff.

    Social networking sites haven’t generally made me particularly uncomfortable. What I really don’t like is when email services data-mine what should be private communications. Last time I checked, my understanding was that it was a felony to read U.S. Mail addressed to somebody else. Why don’t we treat email the same way when it has effectively replaced U.S. Mail for most purposes? I think that kind of norm is really important for safe communication. Sure, it’s possible to sneakily open people’s mail and make it look like it was never manipulated, but having a strong norm in place that it’s not acceptable to do so means that it’s possible to treat mail correspondence as personal and private.

  3. AF: I believe Google+’s circles are essentially what you’re calling “context”…

    Two comments for AT:

    “Why don’t we treat email the same way when it has effectively replaced U.S. Mail for most purposes?” Because they’re free. For instance, you can disable ads on Google Apps if you have a paid account. And of course, you can always run your own mail server or pay someone to do so.

    “I have other forums for the more private stuff.” Why do you trust these other forums? At least one of them is owned by a sketchy Russian company.

    • Because they’re free. For instance, you can disable ads on Google Apps if you have a paid account. And of course, you can always run your own mail server or pay someone to do so.

      I don’t object to the use of advertising to pay for a free online service. I object to data-mining personal correspondences. Turning off the ads doesn’t stop Google from developing a profile on me. If there’s been any statement from Google that they will disable the data-mining on paid accounts, I’d be very interested to see it.

      I do plan to get myself set up with a paid encrypted email service. That doesn’t change the fact that practically everyone I correspond with over email is using free services that do the data-mining.

      Why do you trust these other forums? At least one of them is owned by a sketchy Russian company.

      I don’t. Not particularly. I don’t use those forums for individual private communications. It’s what I use when I don’t want to broadcast my thoughts to everyone on the internet. The difference between 6Apart and Facebook is that 6Apart content fairly reliably goes only to 6Apart users to whom I’ve given specific permission to read that content. Facebook assumes that everything you post is of interest to everybody, unless you jump through a bunch of hoops (and jump through them again every time the privacy standards change). Google+ seems to currently be somewhere between the two, but who knows where they’ll end up? I just know I don’t like the privacy policy on their email.

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