In the Blog

Private parts vs. private places

September 13th, 2008     by Mir Verburg     Comments

Good morning to all you Saturday surfers smile. Today I’d like to bring some attention to this troubling article from yesterday’s Globe and Mail - Faceless no more: Social networking comes with a price.

The basic premise is one we are familiar with: “Young Canadians share too much information online and they don’t understand the risks involved - or care about their privacy.”

“During a two month-long investigation, The Globe and Mail tracked more than a dozen Canadians through their open social networking profiles, and used freely available web tools to build detailed profiles of each individual user.”

This not just a speculative moral panic, the Globe actually went and stalked some young Canadians, all in the name of privacy? Whatever sells your paper, right?

The real problem however is not the data-mining (although as far as I am concerned that’s pretty creepy), it’s how the gender of the youth providing the data is framed. Let’s call it the “the naive sex kitten” versus “wild party animal” bias.

Let me give you two examples from which I have kindly removed all reference to gender.

Example 1:

A 19-year-old keeps a sexually explicit Nexopia profile where they write about their baby girl, father, and brother. Although it does not list their full name, the account has photos of the user with their daughter. Some of the things the user likes to do include talking to their mother, shaving off someone’s eyebrow when he or she falls asleep, and “trying” to talk on the phone while under the influence of magic mushrooms.

Example #2:

To celebrate the end of school, a fourth-year University of Toronto student, who has a private Facebook profile, posted in a public events section a map to their Collingwood, Ont. cottage and left a cellphone as the contact information.

Alrighty, I know this is getting long but let’s put the gender attributes back in:

Example #1:

A 19-year-old Edmonton woman keeps a sexually explicit Nexopia profile where she writes about her baby girl, her father, and her brother. Although it does not list her full name, the account has photos of her with her daughter. Some of the things she likes to do include talking to her mother, shaving off someone’s eyebrow when he or she falls asleep, and “trying” to talk on the phone while under the influence of magic mushrooms.

Example #2:

To celebrate the end of school, a fourth-year University of Toronto student, who has a private Facebook profile, posted in a public events section a map to his Collingwood, Ont. cottage and left his cellphone as the contact information.

These are not the only two examples that insist on framing women’s decisions to publicize information about their lives or their bodies as sexual invitations, while framing men’s disclosures as invitations to home invasion. It is a common thread running through the entire article. Apparently when men post public information about their lives it is their property at risk and for women, it is our/their bodies. There’s a hybrid example that illustrates my point further:

Example #3:

A 20-year-old Edmonton man is one of several who create public event listing for their birthday, and post any one, or all, of a home address, cellphone number, driving directions and other relevant information. A 16-year-old girl from Peneticton, B.C., for instance, suggested a black-light party where people draw on each other in the dark. And a 21-year-old Vancouver woman held her birthday at the Vancouver Aquarium and posted a schedule of events that she and her friends would attend. (2:15 p.m.: Sea Otter Talk.)

Okay, so.. following the sea otter talk, let’s see if we can find some time to be harassed by Facebook stalkers? Seriously. Notice how the example of Mr. Edmonton is all about home addresses, and driving directions, whereas the examples of both Ms. Peneticton, and Vancouver involve less direct, though no less suggestive references to bodies and boundary problems related to intimacy and social harassment.

What is more invasive from a “respecting and understanding someone’s privacy” perspective? A 16-year-old posting a black light party for her friends, or a reporter framing that party in a national newspaper to make it sound like an invitation to an underage flesh fest? Where is the respect for a young person’s right to have whatever damn kind of party they want, regardless their gender? Were I still 16-years-old with a profile on MySpace or Facebook, I would feel judged, and frankly a bit ashamed of myself just for wanting to be considered an attractive, sexy and interesting person to my peers. That just isn’t fair, and it’s not responsible journalism.

As far as the Globe and Mail is concerned the worst a boy can expect is that their end of term house party will turn into a rager, or they’ll get fired from an after-school job they never liked anyways. Are the lads in this post being judged for their apparently over-sexed behaviour? Of course not. With the exception of the obligatory; “Young men define their masculinity by how many pretty girls they can add to their list of friends”, young men are primarily portrayed to be at risk of well, having too much fun - oh damn that’s a tough one. The irony here is that as feminist scholar Sandra Weber has pointed out in her research on teenagers online lives, much of the compliments and sexually explicit chit-chat that frames girls’ pictures of themselves looking h0tttii3eee comes from their female friends.

There is an important layer to young female exhibitionism online that the Globe and Mail hasn’t considered. Regardless of the privacy settings, online profiles are safer spaces for young women to get positive feedback for their individual sexuality and attractiveness. Positive feedback that, generally speaking, is missing from a mainstream media that pays more attention to models and movie stars, can really instill in young women the sense that their own un-airbrushed bodies are less then perfect. Mainstream media, as this article more then adequately demonstrates, is actually pretty scared by young women’s sexual desires. Sure TMI is based on reality TV, sure it makes people uncomfortable, the nice thing though, is that it’s also some much needed positive re-enforcement from members of one’s own community. Let’s balance that against the knee-jerk judgments offered by this article, and frankly I am more inclined to side with the girls posting pics of themselves in a hot tub.

Young women are at risk when they live in unsafe communities, when their sexual freedom is portrayed as “asking for it” and when they do not receive the love, support and care that they deserve from their family, their friends, and also, from the world at large. Portraying the young women “researched” in this article as naive and foolish puts them at greater risk because it contributes to the myth that they are simply there to be taken advantage of.

In closing, the article deals a death blow to young ladieezz’ freedom to be foxy on the web. In an interview with a young woman who is on her way to college, the reporter explains that he has built a very explicit profile on her life based only on her public web-based disclosures. He suggests that she could be at risk for a variety of unsavory privacy violations; from identity theft, to online stalking. She is justifiably worried and thus resolves to be more careful in the future. The article closes with:

“I’m obviously not going to put down my address and where I’m going to be every five minutes,” she said. “Or my class schedule. That’s the kind of thing that would bother me. If I had my course schedule on there … because people already know what university I go to.” But she still might get her boyfriend to take a look at her profile’s privacy settings one more time. Just in case.

Is it 1956? Do women still need men to make sure they’ve locked their doors at night? When will the insistence on portraying women as incompetent users of technology stop? This is especially infuriating coming hard on the heels of an article that frames them as naive potential victims of harassment, stalking and rape due to their use of new technologies. Despite fears around public disclosure, young women are smart, capable and know how to take care of themselves online - without help from the boys. Why the Globe and Mail chose to portray the female subjects of this article as it has speaks more to public anxieties around young women’s freedom and sexuality than it does to any real concern for their safety.

Tags: body politics, geek chic, media savvy

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