EDIT: she's since resigned: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-22083032
Do we need a new social etiquette?
This story bothers me for all sorts of reasons. Summary: Paris Brown, a 17 year old girl who has recently been appointed a Youth Police and Crime Commissioner, tweeted lots of things since she was 14 that she has now come to regret in her new public position.
How private are your words? What you say in the privacy of your own bedroom, or a restaurant, or a dinner party, or in the pub, or in your car, or in the office, or in a park; each environment has its own context and "zeitgeist". For example, some IRC channels fervently discourage logging. Some other environments (I'm thinking particularly of a MUD I know well, and channels such as #xkcd
) have a culture of logging and of publishing conversations, particularly funny ones.
However, they also have a culture of anonymity. Look at the average facebooking MUDder for example (if you know any); they rarely have real-world personal information published, or real photos. This—in my view—comes from the online culture they've come to know, one that espouses logging from a position of anonymity On the other hand, not all channels like being logged, because, well, IRC might be considered more a conversation than a matter of public record. These communities have developed their own cultural mores over many years, and in my view there is a generational gap between oldies like me and people who never spent time on listservs, Usenet or BBSs.
This means that if you know a number of different cultures (and why they exist), then you know the various etiquettes surrounding privacy and internal conversations. However, if all you know about life online is messing about with your mates on Twitter and Facebook, then that becomes your "normal", and we have problems like those of Paris Brown.
It's more complex than that too, because some people want or expect Twitter to archive tweets for all time, when they didn't make it easy to find older tweets. Other services such as Snap Bird and Topsy have sprung up to fill this gap. Facebook already stores everything you do in a timeline, and Geocities aside, many other old sites pages, blogs, mailing lists and LiveJournal-type things going back years have things that people have written and will perhaps never go away.
On the other hand, in Ireland, data protection laws stipulate that you retire data after it's served its purpose, and that you have a policy in place to delete it after that time. For example, a company I worked for required that I delete student information two years after my last contact with them, at which point the data had ceased to have any relevance to its original function.
In this context, what is Twitter?
Is it a form of IRC? a conversation? a journal? If that's the case, should we delete everything after two years, because it's no longer relevant in the context of an informal conversation? And therefore do we have the expectation that it's transient and informal, like a conversation in a pub or at a party?
Or is it a record of history, like an interview in the school yearbook, or a stenographer's recording of a court proceedings?
That decision hasn't been made by twitter, and some people who think it's one get upset when it's the other.
Someone who wants to browse someone's tweets from four years ago can't do so as easily as last week's tweets, because they're transient (or at best hard to get at).
Someone, like Paris Brown, who doesn't realise the world will look at her tweets from three years ago when she was writing in a different context ends up massively embarrassed when they are now a matter of public record. The informal conversation at a party has become the court record.
This all, by the way, is going to become even more of an issue in the not very distant future. Consider the likes of Google Glass, always-on monitoring of mobile devices, progressively more ubiquitous drones and security cameras that get progressively more sensitive and gather progressively more data.
It's entirely possible that a camera on top of a traffic light can use lasers to listen to conversations within cars stopped at those lights, or a drone flying above the city can do the same thing. Or a mobile phone in someone's pocket.
The Samsung S4 has a camera that's on while the screen is on, so it watches your eyes and automatically scrolls pages while you're reading so you don't have to. Great technology, and one that many would probably use if they had it. However, imagine the possibilities of an always-on camera.
The same kind of idea can be used for always-on microphones: Many smartphones already have the ability to do a hands-free unlock (with non-standard software, for now), and perform different tasks from that state. This means the phone is already listening to its environment. This isn't necessarily a bad feature; as far as we know it only chooses to do something when it hears you talking to it.
Now consider the combination of always-on always-connected sensors, easier data transmission and storage, and the lack of clarity about the expectation of context of that data. It's already legal in many countries to photograph or record video or audio of events in public places, where the people being recorded have no expectation of privacy. At what point does such recording become constant, assuming it isn't already? Is a conversation you're having in your car, but that can be overheard using laser technology, public or private? At what point do enough people start logging conversations they've "heard" on the train or park bench and putting them on the Internet, so that you could find out what your colleagues said about you while having a lunchtime walk?
So, on the one hand we have the expectation of an open social graph, where all are free to be conversational and say what they want. On the other hand, once said it becomes a matter of record. Our current social media networks have already progressed faster than cultural customs can keep up, and with the onset of always-on always-connected sensors and massive data gathering, this can only get more complex as time goes on.