Friday, May 7, 2010

levels of privacy

Some people advocate that one shouldn't say anything over electronic media that one wouldn't say on prime time t.v. Others believe that no strangers can ever see anything sent to or posted for a specific individual or group of individuals. Neither view is accurate.

"Public" forms of electronic communication, such as web pages and blogs, are the most like broadcasting. Or, for most people, like a small press publishing a book on an obscure topic. Probably only your friends and family will be interested in reading it, and only those you tell about it will even know it exists. But unlike a book, it never goes out of print, it 's available to anyone in the world, and search engines can link to it, so the chances of unintended readers increases.

"Private" forms of electronic communication -- e-mail, texting, chat, personal social network pages, photo sharing pages, news groups, small, private blogs -- are more like talking quietly in a restaurant. For the most part, nobody's listening, but stray bits might be overheard, and nosy people may be able to hear as much of the conversation as they want with a little effort.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

privacy: the intersection of technology & culture

Just in time for Choose Privacy Week.

I may have made a terrible mistake last weekend. I published something on the internet I should not have. Oh, nothing illegal or sexual or cruel to someone else. It was a light piece, a humorous version of a recipe -- for an alcoholic beverage.

This in spite of being well educated and internet savvy. Nor was it for lack of thinking over the consequences and making a choice. For one thing, it was put up as a "Note" on Facebook, and my Notes are set to be visible to friends only. But, knowing that privacy settings are neither foolproof, nor hackerproof, nor unchanging, I asked the test question: Would I be willing to publish this, under my own name, in a print magazine (if I could find a magazine willing to pay for it)? Is it appropriate in subject and tone for a respectable, middle-aged female in the United States in the early 21st century? Given that humor was clearly intended (even if some readers might happen to not find it personally funny), and that in the 21st century it's o.k. for women to joke, I decided to go ahead. (BTW, at least three of my friends were amused.)

The problem is that internet "speech" (including writing and even including reading (think Google searches)) has more possible consequences than speech in the meat world had before the web let everybody watch everybody all the time. -- More consequences than digital natives, much less digital immigrants (like yours-elderly-truly), can predict. Material on the web is potentially available to everyone -- including irrational people, mistaken people, people who need to judge others poorly to feel o.k. about themselves, mean people, people who can profit from another's detriment.

Furthermore, culture values are changing, evolving along with the technology and any previous choices society has made regarding the technology, not to mention other influences. Even a decade ago, no employer (except for very sensitive jobs, such as the CIA) or educational institution would think of invading a prospect's private parties in order to judge character. Now checking for social media revelations of party behavior is becoming commonplace. Part of this change is due to a growing lack of respect for the concept of privacy, and part to a growing insistence on moral perfection, untempered, as in earlier "puritanical" eras, by built-in loopholes or mercy.

And there seems to be a growing seriousness. Some people would rather see a person as vicious (in the sense of "full of vice") or insane than joking. Making one's statements increasingly outrageous in order to signal "this is a joke," only increases the judgement. People like this either have no concept of humor, or feel that it is invalid, always a cover-up for the "true," unacceptable feelings. And it seems that there are more and more of these super-serious people. Or maybe the percentage hasn't changed much, but every person, and every comment, comes into contact with so many more people, that the sheer numbers and frequency of fringe opinions can cause harm.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

an annoying trend

I hope this isn't going to be a real trend; I hope it's just the luck of the draw, but three books I've read recently have had open endings. Two -- The Amanda Project: Invisible I, by Melissa Kantor and Skeleton Creek, by Patrick Carman -- are Young Adult novels, and one -- The Dreamer: The Consequence of Nathan Hale, by Lora Innes -- is a graphic novel) It's not that these books end with an ambiguous twist, which would be annoying but valid, but rather, the plots simply stop in the middle. When I put in the time to read a whole book, I want, well, a whole story. There's an unspoken expectation in a book-length text that the reader will feel some sense of closure at the end.

Yes, comics (if I may use a taboo colloquialism) often have cliffhanging endings. That's why the graphic novel format usually contains about four to six issues bound together. That way it can contain the entire story -- climax, denouement, and all.

Yes, a series may have a grand plot that spans all of its volumes, but each volume usually has a fully-resolved subplot or secondary plot. Or perhaps the ending will bring the conclusion of one story and the beginning of a new one. If two mysteries are presented, as in Invisible I, the reader expects one to be solved by the end of the book, even as the other continues through the series.

The one of these three that bothered me least was Skeleton Creek, which ends with the main characters in mortal danger. In other words, it's a classic cliffhanger. It's still a bit of a dirty trick on this scale, though. Cliffhanging chapters come to a conclusion with a flick of a few more pages. The serial movies and comics of my youth were made bearable by the fact that the next installment would come in a week, or at most, a month. But the wait for the next book to be published is awfully long.