CIS 2050 Study Notes 2
Don Tapscott: Is privacy an outmoded idea in the digital age?
A growing number of people argue that the notion of having a private life in which we
carefully restrict the information we share with others may not be a good idea.
Scott McNealy, the erstwhile Sun Microsystems CEO, who in 2000 stated: ―You have
zero privacy anyway. Get over it.‖
The new view holds that we should all be more forthcoming in sharing intimate, personal
information; that it would benefit us individually and society as a whole.
Jeff Jarvis, in his book Public Parts, makes the case for sharing — and he practices what
he preaches. ―I'm a public man,‖ says Jarvis. ―My life is an open book.‖
He says this has had an enormously positive effect on his life, arguing the world would
be a better place if everyone were more like him.
He concludes that while sharing should be a personal choice, privacy regulation should
be avoided because it's more likely to prematurely undermine the benefits of sharing than
to prevent the dangers.
The Facebook founders think ―more visibility makes us better people. Some claim, for
example, that because of Facebook, young people today have a harder time cheating on
their boyfriends or girlfriends. They also say that more transparency should make for a
more tolerant society in which people eventually accept that everybody sometimes does
bad or embarrassing things.‖
Some at Facebook refer to this as ―radical transparency‖ — a term initially used to talk
about institutions, and now being adapted to individuals. In other words, everyone should
have just one identity, whether at their workplace or in their personal life.
They are all ―public‖ to some extent, but we have some measure of control over which
face, role or identity we present in any given context.
With radical transparency, all of our identities and behaviours become flattened and
observable by others — and we lose control. We need a robust system for preserving our
ability to maintain multiple and separate identities in the emerging real and virtual world
of ubiquitous surveillance.
Stanford Professor Andreas Weigend, who was former chief scientist at Amazon.com,
says ―the notion of privacy began with the creation of cities, and it's pretty much ended
with Facebook.‖ He says ―our social norms are changing.‖
It may be that our fundamental ideas about identity and privacy, the strategies that we
have collectively pursued, and the technologies that we have adopted, must change and
adapt in a rapidly evolving world of connectivity, networking, participation, sharing and
To be sure, digital technologies and social media are providing new benefits to sharing
personal information, and not just from getting more birthday wishes. There is a real
upside to participating in communities, seeing photos, hearing stories or knowing the
location of friends and family.
Sharing also helps companies deliver personalized products and services. If you live in an
apartment block you won't see ads on Google or Facebook for lawn mowers. When we reveal personal information we can help society, too. Every time a gay person
comes out, or someone with depression opens up about their condition, they break down
stigma and prejudice. Twenty per cent of all patients with the fatal disease ALS share
intimate information about their treatments and condition on PatientsLikeMe.com. Tens
of thousands of others with rare diseases who use that website report that sharing has
helped them better manage their illness.
And many of us are willing accomplices in dissolving our own privacy rights in exchange
for new services, conveniences and efficiencies.
Before Facebook, few would have predicted that hundreds of millions of people would
voluntarily log on to the Internet and record detailed data about themselves, their
activities, their likes and dislikes.
Some might wonder: ―What could I do throughout the day that's so important that I
would actually want to record it?‖ It's not unlike a question many people posed a couple
of decades ago: ―What's so important that I would need to carry a phone everywhere so
people could reach me?‖
Businesspeople will archive meetings with associates or suppliers, so that if a dispute
arises they can go back and prove they're right. Of course, since everybody knows the
conversations are being recorded, the dispute is less likely to ever arise.
Add to this the emerging ―augmented reality‖ tools, where you point your mobile device
at the street and it gives you real-time information about the world around you. For
augmented reality to work, the device must know precisely where you are and have a
detailed understanding of what interests you. If you can annotate the physical world a
plethora of new capabilities open up. For example, when walking down the street,
through the screen inside your sunglasses, perhaps you can see the names and profiles of
people you're meeting.
Consider the implications of Apple's soon-to-be-improved product SIRI. Your digital
assistant knows more than what you're searching or surfing. It knows and collects
detailed information about your behaviour, questions and intents and the issues you face
in daily life.
Don Tapscott on the need for a personal digital privacy strategy
The ubiquity of digital gadgets and sensors, the pervasiveness of networks and the
benefits of sharing very personal information through social media have led some to
argue that privacy as a social norm is changing and becoming an outmoded concept.
In testimony before a congressional committee, Justin Brookman of the Center for
Democracy & Technology — which is pledged to ―keep the Internet open, innovative and
free‖ — outlined the dilemma that citizens confront when they want to participate fully in
society, yet not live under constant surveillance:
―There is an incredible amount that we as a society have to gain from innovative new
technologies, but there is also an incredible amount that we have to lose. Without a
framework in place to assure everyday consumers of the ability to limit the collection and
retention of the minutiae of their lives by unknown third parties, any sense of a realm of
personal privacy may completely evaporate.‖
Brookman cites many examples. He compares the digital record kept of stories read on a
newspaper‘s website, compared to the anonymity of buying and reading a paper from a
newsstand. Or going out for a drive, talking to friends, writing letters, watching TV. ―All of these rights are eroding as these activities move into the networked world and
surveillance technologies become more sophisticated.
Brookman likens the decision to opt out of being party to the data collection as analogous
to opting out of electricity 30 years ago. ―To disconnect from the services that collect
such personal, sensitive data would be to disconnect from society.‖
Stewart Brand wrote famously in 1984:―Information wants to be free. Information also
wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to
distribute, copy, and recombine — too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it
can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient.
―That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price,
copyright, ‗intellectual property,‘ the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each
round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.‖
The tensions between information freedom and personal control are exploding, and not
simply because of the benefits of sharing information using new media. Massive
commercial and government interests, along with malevolent individuals, have much to
gain as each of us reveals highly granular personal information, much of it in the public
domain by default. The clear and present danger is the irreversible erosion of that most
enabling of liberties: anonymity.
The champions of personal openness argue that it‘s futile to try and restrict what
information is collected. They say we need better norms and understanding in society
about how that information is used.
Jeff Jarvis, an advocate of personal sharing and author of Public Parts, suggests an
intellectual exercise to try and probe the limits of personal openness. He poses the
provocative question: ―Why can‘t we be completely open about our health?‖ He says
there are three reasons: insurance, employment and stigma.
The fundamental problem with the case of radical personal openness is that we are a long
way from a world where being open will not hurt us — a world where employers don‘t
discriminate because an applicant has had a mental illness, held a certain political point
of view or was photographed as a teenager having a beer on Facebook.
The now-notorious app Girls Around Me showed the unintended and unwelcome
consequences of sharing information online. The iPhone app combined the information
people provided on Facebook with the location information from the Foursquare site. In
both cases, users would have deemed their personal information to be public. Girls
Around Me created a map showing the location and photographs of nearby women. So if
you were a guy on the town looking for female company, the app would tell you who was
in the neighbourhood.
On its website, the company bragged that the app was a ―revolutionary new city scanner
app than turns your town into a dating paradise! Use it to see where hot girls and guys are
hanging out in your area, view their photos and make contact!‖ Users could browse
―photos of lovely local ladies and tap their thumbnail to find out more about them.‖
The women whose faces appeared on the screen did not ask to have themselves presented
this way. Girls Around Me did not have permission to use their personal information this
way. But Girls Around Me didn‘t need their permission, since the profiled women had
put the info online and said it was public.
True, the problem was corrected. Foursquare has since said its information was no longer
available to the Girls Around Me application. Apple has removed the app from its App Store. But we should ask ourselves how many other countless bad actors will attempt to
use our data in damaging ways.
Given that few social and legal controls exist over what happens to our personal
information, a life plan of ―being open‖ is probably a big mistake. Personal information,
be it biographical, biological, genealogical, historical, transactional, locational, relational,
computational, vocational or reputational, is the stuff that makes up our modern identity
and is the foundation of our personal security. It must be managed responsibly — not just
by others but by each of us.
We each need a personal privacy strategy governing what information we release and to
whom. Rather than default to openness, we should default to privacy. We could then opt
to share information when the benefits outweigh the dangers.
Privacy, the self and human relationships
It may seem an odd notion today, but initially the Internet was a favourite refuge for
many seeking privacy.
This idea was best captured in a famous 1993 New Yorker cartoon, featuring two dogs
sitting in front of a computer, with one saying to the other: ―On the Internet, nobody
knows you‘re a dog.‖ People were assured of anonymity if that was what they desired. A
teenager questioning his sexual orientation could visit gay-friendly sites that would offer
helpful information and answer questions without him having to reveal his identity
Even though the human condition requires connection, we also need to feel confident that
we can be alone and unwatched when we want to be, says privacy advocate Ann
Cavoukian: ―We are social animals who seek contact with each other, and we benefit
from sharing information appropriately. But we also seek moments of solitude, intimacy,
quiet, reserve and private reflection.
Masud R. Khan‘s essay collection The Privacy of the Self. The book discusses our need
for living in a community with others alongside our wish and need to preserve our unique
―The main concern about radical transparency is that all of our identities and behaviours
become flattened and observable by others, and we lose control,‖ writes Kahn.
True, we form ourselves in response to each other. But if we are constantly interacting,
being scrutinized and revealing everything, is there not a danger of losing track of where
you end and other people begin? This is why most developmental psychologists argue
that personal secrecy is a crucial part of human development.
During adolescence, the period where ―the self‖ begins to jell, there is a critical need to
be able to start again, to redefine your self. But in order to refashion oneself, and embark
on a new self definition, it‘s necessary to cut loose from the past. This was hard enough
to do when a handful of people had a clear concept of who you ―are.‖ It becomes
infinitely more difficult when your more personal feelings, photos and other private data
have been circulated to the world.
Privacy is also important to building strong relationships. Many people have worried that
social media extends the number of weak ties that we all have, at the expense of strong
ties. This is a complicated topic, because all ties in society that are strong begin as weak
ties. In theory if we can expand the number of weak ties this should expand the pool from
which strong ties can be formed. However, true intimacy involves the symmetrical sharing of very personal information. We share secrets with close friends, loved ones and
with those we might come to love.
The term ―oversharing‖ has become a popular cultural meme referring to the act or
practice of sharing too much information, or TMI, with people who have no need, or who
are not necessarily prepared or qualified to receive it. Telling a co-worker you went to the
doctor is pertinent information. Telling them you were having your hemorrhoids treated
is probably oversharing.
The term is pejorative. If you overshare it can hurt your relationships with others, as
much as being rude can.
―Some oversharing is the result of a poorly developed social filter or shut up button‖ says
The WiseGeek blog. ―Different people may have different ideas over what constitutes
oversharing or TMI, so they may not realize they are making others feel uncomfortable.
Once the oversharing line has been crossed, it is often difficult to erase those images from
In a simpler time such restraint in social life was called manners. Manners are the largely
unwritten, underlying ethical codes in society about how we should interact with each
other. They have a deep function — to help ensure civility, consideration of others and in
some ways civilization itself. Unlike the formal legal system, the punishment of bad
manners is social disapproval. Rude people can suffer reputational damage.
Similarly, oversharing can cause reputational damage and hurt relationships.
Of course manners change. In the past it would have been inappropriate to meet someone
without a letter of introduction. But as the Linked-In referral system shows, some
manners encode deeply held norms about human behaviour and protocol. They not only
help us be civil but productive.
Further, when we share information we need to be considerate of the interested or related
parties. Many young people I‘ve talked to have a rule about parties — no tagging of
photos without my permission. Plan on publishing your personal genome? You might
want to discuss with your children first, as you‘re essentially communicating very
personal information about them.
Oversharing can also undermine trust. Trust is, in part, the expectation that another party
will be considerate of your interests. In many circumstances oversharing of information is
inconsiderate. Increasingly we hope those we trust share information that is pertinent —
that helps us if we receive it.
Personal reputation management is a new challenge of the digital age. Irving Goffman‘s
seminal 1959 text The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life needs an update. Goffman
used the metaphor of the theatre to portray the importance of human — namely, social —
action. An actor performs on a setting which is constructed of a stage and a backstage.
The props at either setting direct his action. He is being watched by an audience, but at
the same time he is an audience for his viewers‘ play. Actors strive to be coherent and
adjust to the different settings offered them mainly through interaction with other actors,
all of whom are attempting to perform in a way that reflects well upon themselves.
When Goffman was making his observations in the late 1950s, the stage upon which we
presented ourselves to others was pretty limited, and it was a physical place, involving
face to face contact. Today our tweets, Facebook updates, emails, texts, photos, even the
places we visit all become public. The number of actors on the stage and audience has
grown exponentially. Surely if we are to present ourselves well in everyday life, build strong relationships and
a solid reputation, we need to be discreet and respectful of the beholder‘s need to know
information about us.
The fate of the Twitter ―oversharer‖ is instructive. Flood the world with a river of
information that is not pertinent and you‘ll lose followers. More dire consequences can
The digital debate: real dangers of thoughtless sharing
Privacy is important to our concept of the self and our relationships with others. But there
are other dangers that should cause us to be careful about the information we share. These
are not simply the unfounded fears of ―privacy fanatics,‖ as Jeff Jarvis calls them in the
book Public Parts.
As noted earlier, we are collectively creating, storing and communicating information at
nearly exponential rates of growth. Most of this data is personally identifiable, and third
parties control much of it. Practical obscurity — the basis for privacy norms throughout
history — is fast disappearing. More and more aspects of our lives are becoming
observable, linkable and identifiable to others. Thanks to networked computing
technologies, this personal data will be archived online forever and be instantly
searchable, and none of us have any idea how it might be used to harm us.
At the same time, novel risks and threats are emerging from this digital cornucopia. The
availability of so much detailed personal information can be used for secondary purposes,
many of which are not known or intended by the individuals.
Yes, likely someday there will be norms, laws and practices governing the responsible
use of all this data. But practically, these do not exist today. There is little guarantee that
personal information you share from social media sites is locked down or will not be used
in ways that harm you. Much of it can be searched and retrieved by anyone on the
Internet, including employers, law enforcement officials, public sector agencies,
infomediaries, lawyers, the press, and anyone else who may be interested in the data.
When this data is assembled into profiles, matched with other info and used to make
(automated) judgments about (and decisions affecting) individuals, such as whether to
hire them, or whether to admit entry, or to calculate benefits or terms of an offer, or to
corroborate a claim, then the effects of privacy loss include discrimination, especially if
the data is inaccurate.
Ninety per cent of all employers access young people‘s social media pages when they are
considering an application. Seventy per cent reject people based on what they find. In
some cases employers demand that job applicants provide social media IDs and
passwords as a precondition to hiring.
College applicants are being rejected because of their Facebook newsfeed. Facebook
postings have been deemed admissible by courts during litigations. And is some cases
privacy settings won‘t help — information you have restricted to close friends can be
While the exact extent of this practice (sexting) is debated, studies have indicated that 20
per cent of teens have sent nude or semi-nude photographs of themselves electronically.
There are countless stories where the reputation, happiness and even safety of girls and
young women have been compromised as result. As Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, says: ―Just as there are laws that
prevent discrimination based on gender, race and age we need a law banning
discrimination on the basis of something you said on Facebook before the age of 19.‖ But
lacking such, a parent‘s mantra should be ―sharer beware.‖
Corporations: the main beneficiaries of personal sharing
The most powerful forces making the case for sharing personal information are not
philosophers or media pundits — they are social media companies and other corporations
that have a lot to gain from our social norms about privacy changing.
As the Net becomes the basis for commerce, work, entertainment, health care, learning
and much human discourse, each of us is leaving a trail of digital crumbs as we spend a
growing portion of our day touching networks.
the hundreds of other network transactions in a typical day — point to the problem.
Computers can inexpensively link and cross-reference such databases to slice, dice and
recompile information about individuals in hundreds of different ways. That means
companies want to know more and more about what makes each of us tick — our
motivations, behaviour, attitudes and buying habits. The good news is that companies can
give us highly customized services based on this intimate knowledge — and build
trusting relationships. Sometimes it is great to have highly customized ads. I don‘t want
to hear or see car ads except when I am interested in buying a new car.
Many companies have no problem trying to convince customers to do things that are not
in their interests. Millions of homeowners got a taste of this in the subprime mortgage
scandal. They were seduced into purchasing homes they couldn‘t afford.
Now, imagine a world where corporations have near-perfect information about each of
us. As the aphorism goes ―knowledge is power.‖ Could firms go beyond fairly
influencing us, to being able to manipulate us?
We already live in a consumer society where people go into debt to purchase things they
really can‘t afford. If corporations had information about our every purchase, how could
they use that asymmetrical power to advance their interests against ours?
Sometimes the information is used in a very roundabout way. Drug companies buy
information from pharmacies about the drugs doctors prescribe to their patients. That way
they know which doctors to target for their advertising and promotional campaigns, with
the intent that the doctor starts prescribing different drugs.
Moreover, the information you provide has value — to market researchers, advertising
companies social networks and other online platforms. But most companies disagree that
individuals own the rights to such information since people provide the data free or
nearly free. The entire value of Facebook, estimated at $100 billion, for example, is the
knowledge it has of its users: their likes and dislikes, what they say, what they do, where
they shop, who are their friends and so on.
The degree of detail Facebook has is unprecedented. It pays no money to users in
exchange for this information. Facebook insists that it provides a superior service as a
result, and that is sufficient payment. The same is true of Google. It prides itself on
accurately targeted advertising, for which its advertising clients pay top dollar. None of
this money is shared with Google‘s users, however. If they are selling your information
without your permission, they are depriving you of the opportunity to capture that income
yourself. The situation becomes more grim when companies exchange information with one
another or with different arms of the same corporation, taking a series of seemingly
simple isolated acts and compiling them into a detailed profile of an individual‘s
behaviour. Google recently announced it would share information across its search
engine, YouTube downloads, Gmail use and more than 50 other separate services the
company provides. Again, this is done so that Google has as detailed a profile of
individuals‘ behaviour as possible, so that advertisers will pay more for the possibility of
influencing your behaviour.
The digital divide: Big Brother 2.0 is watching you
George Orwell‘s iconic text 1984described the dystopian society where a totalitarian state
rules in its own interests and everyone is under constant surveillance by authorities. ―Big
Brother is watching you‖ became the rallying call for privacy advocates around the
Today Orwell‘s ―telescreens‖ have been replaced by ubiquitous, ambient networked
computing, where billions and soon trillions of devices connected to networks collect
real-time data. True, governments in the developed world are not totalitarian, but many
advocates of personal ―openness‖ are naïve — assuming that governments are benevolent
and will act in the interests of their citizens.
Fascism, Stalinism, McCarthyism and the myriad repressive and totalitarian states of the
last decades and today should remind us that our personal data can be used against us.
Listen to Pete Seeger‘s ―Knock on the Door‖ (―here they come to take one more‖) for a
reminder. And today, in the name of national security, governments are collecting real-
time information from us, sampling phone calls, emails, social networks and taking our
biometrics at airports and a growing list of other places.
We actually have very little idea exactly what governments are doing with the flood of
personal information about us. And the aftermath of Sept. 11 should remind us just how
quickly our civil liberties can be undermined in the name of national security.
Everywhere in democratic societies, governments are campaigning to intrude into our
private lives to collect more information. In the U.K., the ―Intercept Modernisation Plan‖
would permit authorities to intercept every form of online communication, all in aid of
vague goals of fighting crime.
Recently the New York Times reported that ―law enforcement tracking of cellphones,
once the province mainly of federal agents, has become a powerful and widely used
surveillance tool for local police officials, with hundreds of departments, large and small,
often using it aggressively with little or no court oversight.‖
The Times reports that this practice has become big business for cellphone companies,
too, as carriers market a catalogue of ―surveillance fees‖ to police departments to
determine a suspect‘s location, trace phone calls and texts or provide other services.
But we still need to resist attempts of governments to collect unnecessary information.
We still need to fight for the basic privacy principle of ―data minimization‖ — of limiting
the information collected to clearly definable and socially helpful purposes.
There should be no tapping of phones or anything else without due process. If a
government agency proposes to set up video camera in your neighbourhood, you need to
decide if the benefits of possible crime reduction outweigh the possible dangers of
unknown governments being able to watch you constantly. Or increasingly, governments want to collect biometrics information about you —
fingerprints, retinal scans and even DNA. We each need to make choices. Sometimes this
benefits you with better government services or faster movement through airports. But
what are the long-term implications should a government agency or individual become
malevolent? The average person must be cautious and vigilant and even resist the
collection of unnecessary personal information.
The more appropriate metaphor for the growing loss of privacy today is found in Franz
Kafka‘s The Trial, where the central character awaits trial and judgment from an
inscrutable bureaucracy for a crime he is not told about, using evidence that is never
revealed to him, in a process that is equally random and inscrutable.
In likewise manner, we, too, will be judged and sentenced in our absentia by unknown
public and private bureaucracies having access to our personal data. We will be the
targets of social engineering, decisions and discrimination and we will never really know
what or why.
If history is any guide, advances in privacy have tended to arise in the wake of
widespread privacy abuses, for example, the negative effects of mass printing presses, the
emergence of the fascist state, the abuses of credit reporting companies in the 1960s.
Something similar may be happening today with data breaches and identity theft ―in the
cloud,‖ as more and more people come to understand the pain and consequences of
personal data misuse.
Corporate secrecy and personal privacy are opposites
The issue of personal information has been muddled with the opportunity for
corporations to become more transparent. To be sure, as I wrote almost a decade ago
inThe Naked Corporation (co-author David Ticoll), firms can gain huge benefits from
sharing pertinent information with customers, employees and other stakeholders.
Corporate secrecy is highly overrated and increasingly companies will become more
open in many areas — simply to perform better.
because of the arrival of the Internet, transparency is a powerful new force in business.
People everywhere have at their fingertips the most powerful tool ever for finding out
what‘s really going on and informing others. Customers can evaluate the worth of
products and services at levels not possible before. Employees share formerly secret
information about corporate strategy, management and challenges. To collaborate
effectively, companies and their business partners have no choice but to share intimate
knowledge. Powerful institutional investors are developing x-ray vision. Finally, in a
world of instant communications, whistleblowers, inquisitive media and googling,
citizens and communities routinely put firms under the microscope.
Overall this is a positive development. Whether you‘re a government or company, when
you‘re increasingly naked, fitness is no longer optional. Transparency will force you to
get buff. And if you are fit, you can open the kimono about your organization and when
you do good things can happen. Appropriate transparency drops transaction and
collaboration costs. It increases loyalty and trust. It speeds up the metabolism of
collaboration and contributes to organizational performance.
There are many areas where secrecy pays off, from your business strategy to your
product release plans. But increasingly there are many areas where companies can
―undress for success.‖ Yes, when companies become transparent they also may find themselves releasing
personal information such as the compensation levels of corporate management. But
senior executives control the institution and as such are not simply private individuals. In
their corporate capacity they have a social obligation to reveal some personal
Conversely they have an obligation to fiercely protect the privacy of their employees,
customers and other stakeholders. Unfortunately the debate about personal ―openness‖
has obscured and muddled these important differences.
As the new movement for ―personal openness‖ grows there is a bizarre new danger that
people who are ―private‖ become stigmatized.
Personally, when it comes to each of us as individuals, I think we all need a balance
between the public and private.
we all need and benefit from human interaction and relationships so being a completely
public person undermines one essence of what it is to be human — to be private, reserved
When you share, consider the benefits. But realize that withholding most information
about you is in your interests: there are many ―bad actors‖ who would misuse it. Privacy
is important to the formation and maintenance of human relationships, reputation trust
and even ―the self‖ and its presentation in everyday life. Society lacks the laws and norms
to protect you from companies being invasive or manipulative. And don‘t assume
governments are benevolent: we may be harmed in absentia by unknown public and
private bureaucracies having access to our personal data — perhaps the targets of
injurious decisions and discrimination and we will never really know what or why.
By all means, be as open as you want but realize that with openness can come
vulnerabilities, especially for your children. And as the expression goes, ―Discretion is
the better part of valour‖ meaning that it makes sense to be careful in the face of
unintended consequences and risks.
Seeing Social Media More as Portal Than as Pitfall
More than a hundred years ago, when the telephone was introduced, there was some
hand-wringing over the social dangers that this new technology posed: increased sexual
aggression and damaged human relationships. ―It was going to bring down our society,‖
said Dr. Megan Moreno, a specialist in adolescent medicine at the University of
―When a new technology comes out that is something so important, there is this initial
alarmist reaction,‖ Dr. Moreno said.
Whether about sexting or online bullying or the specter of Internet addiction, ―much
social media research has been on what people call the danger paradigm,‖ said Dr.
Many have started to approach social media as an integral, if risky, part of adolescence,
perhaps not unlike driving. Dr. Rich, who sees many teenagers who struggle with Internet-related issues, feels
strongly that it is important to avoid blanket judgments about the dangers of going online.
―We should not view social media as either positive or negative, but as essentially
neutral,‖ he said. ―It‘s what we do with the tools that decides how they affect us and
those around us.‖
Dr. Moreno‘s early research looked at adolescents who displayed evidence of risky
behaviors on public MySpace profiles, posting photos or statements that referred to
sexual activity or substance abuse. E-mails were sent to those adolescents suggesting that
they modify their profiles or make them private.
Girls were more likely to respond than boys, Dr. Moreno found, and sexual material was
more likely than alcohol-related material to be removed.
Her current research, by contrast, approaches social media as a window, an opportunity to
understand and improve both physical and mental health. In a study of the ways college
students describe sadness in status updates on their Facebook profiles, she showed
thatsome such expressions were associated with depression in students who completed
clinical screening tests.
Since freshman year is a high-risk time for depression, many college resident advisers
already try to use Facebook to monitor students, Dr. Moreno said.
Still, she acknowledged that this new strategy raised privacy concerns
Our children are using social media to accomplish the eternal goals of adolescent
development, which include socializing with peers, investigating the world, trying on
identities and establishing independence.
In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media
issued a clinical report, ―The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents and
Families.‖ It began by emphasizing the benefits of social media for children and
adolescents, including enhanced communication skills and opportunities for social
―A large part of this generation‘s social and emotional development is occurring while on
the Internet and on cellphones,‖ the report noted.
Our job as parents is to help them manage all this wisely, to understand — and avoid —
some of the special dangers and consequences of making mistakes in these media.
‗How is this going to interact with my child‘s personality?‘ ‖ said Clay Shirky ―Digital
media is an amplifier. It tends to make extroverts more extroverted and introverts more
At a 2011 symposium on the Internet and society, two researchers presented information
on how teenagers understand negative talk on the Internet. What adults interpret as
bullying is often read by teenagers as ―drama,‖ a related but distinct phenomenon.
Social media, said Dr. Rich, ―are the new landscape, the new environment in which kids
are sorting through the process of becoming autonomous adults th
Social Media in the 16 Century: How Luther Went Viral
after decades of simmering discontent a new form of media gives opponents of an
authoritarian regime a way to express their views, register their solidarity and co-ordinate
their actions. The protesters' message spreads virally through social networks, making it
impossible to suppress and highlighting the extent of public support for revolution. The
combination of improved publishing technology and social networks is a catalyst for
social change where previous efforts had failed.
That's what happened in the Arab spring. It's also what happened during the Reformation,
nearly 500 years ago, when Martin Luther and his allies took the new media of their
day—pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts—and circulated them through social networks to
promote their message of religious reform.
More recently historians have highlighted the role of media as a means of social
signalling and co-ordinating public opinion in the Reformation.
the wider system of media sharing along social networks—what is called ―social media‖
today. Luther, like the Arab revolutionaries, grasped the dynamics of this new media
environment very quickly, and saw how it could spread his message.
Luther - Pinning a list of propositions to the church door, which doubled as the university
notice board, was a standard way to announce a public debate.
In December 1517 printed editions of the theses, in the form of pamphlets and
broadsheets, appeared simultaneously in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel, paid for by
Luther's friends to whom he had sent copies. German translations, which could be read
by a wider public than Latin-speaking academics and clergy, soon followed and quickly
spread throughout the German-speaking lands.
Luther's friend Friedrich Myconius later wrote that ―hardly 14 days had passed when
these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of
Christendom was familiar with them.‖
―They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,‖ he wrote in March 1518 to
a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses. But
writing in scholarly Latin and then translating it into German was not the best way to
address the wider public.
Luther wrote that he ―should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known
what was going to happen.‖
For the publication later that month of his ―Sermon on Indulgences and Grace‖, he
switched to German, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were
intelligible from the Rhineland to Saxony. The pamphlet, an instant hit, is regarded by
many as the true starting point of the Reformation.
The media environment that Luther had shown himself so adept at managing had much in
common with today's online ecosystem of blogs, social networks and discussion threads.
It was a decentralised system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding
collectively which messages to amplify through sharing and recommendation. Modern media theorists refer to participants in such systems as a ―networked public‖,
rather than an ―audience‖, since they do more than just consume information. Luther
would pass the text of a new pamphlet to a friendly printer (no money changed hands)
and then wait for it to ripple through the network of printing centres across Germany.
Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be
printed in a day or two.
if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own
editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular
pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author's involvement.
As with ―Likes‖ and retweets today, the number of reprints serves as an indicator of a
given item's popularity. Luther's pamphlets were the most sought after; a contemporary
remarked that they ―were not so much sold as seized‖.
His first pamphlet written in German, the ―Sermon on Indulgences and Grace‖, was
reprinted 14 times in 1518 alone, in print runs of at least 1,000 copies each time. Of the
6,000 different pamphlets that were published in German-speaking lands between 1520
and 1526, some 1,700 were editions of a few dozen works by Luther. In all, some 6m-7m
pamphlets were printed in the first decade of the Reformation, more than a quarter of
Tetzel, the indulgence-seller, was one of the first to respond to him in print, firing back
with his own collection of theses. Others embraced the new pamphlet format to weigh in
on the merits of Luther's arguments, both for and against, like argumentative bloggers.
Sylvester Mazzolini defended the pope against Luther in his ―Dialogue Against the
Presumptuous Theses of Martin Luther‖. He called Luther ―a leper with a brain of brass
and a nose of iron‖ and dismissed his arguments on the basis of papal infallibility.
Luther, who refused to let any challenge go unanswered, took a mere two days to produce
his own pamphlet in response, giving as good as he got. ―I am sorry now that I despised
Tetzel,‖ he wrote. ―Ridiculous as he was, he was more acute than you. You cite no
scripture. You give no reasons.‖
Arguments in their own social circles about the merits of Luther's views could be seen as
part of a far wider discourse, both spoken and printed. Many pamphlets called upon the
reader to discuss their contents with others and read them aloud to the illiterate. People
read and discussed pamphlets at home with their families, in groups with their friends,
and in inns and taverns.
Luther's pamphlets were read out at spinning bees in Saxony and in bakeries in Tyrol. In
some cases entire guilds of weavers or leather-workers in particular towns declared
themselves supporters of the Reformation, indicating that Luther's ideas were being
propagated in the workplace.
One observer remarked in 1523 that better sermons could be heard in the inns of Ulm
than in its churches, and in Basel in 1524 there were complaints about people preaching
from books and pamphlets in the town's taverns. Contributors to the debate ranged from the English king Henry VIII, whose treatise attacking Luther (co-written with Thomas
More) earned him the title ―Defender of the Faith‖ from the pope, to Hans Sachs, a
shoemaker from Nuremberg who wrote a series of hugely popular songs in support of
It was not just words that travelled along the social networks of the Reformation era, but
music and images too. The news ballad, like the pamphlet, was a relatively new form of
media. It set a poetic and often exaggerated description of contemporary events to a
familiar tune so that it could be easily learned, sung and taught to others.
hey were distributed in the form of printed lyric sheets, with a note to indicate which tune
they should be sung to. Once learned they could spread even among the illiterate through
the practice of communal singing.
Both reformers and Catholics used this new form to spread information and attack their
enemies. ―We are Starting to Sing a New Song‖, Luther's first venture into the news-
ballad genre, told the story of two monks who had been executed in Brussels in 1523
after refusing to recant their Lutheran beliefs. Luther's enemies denounced him as the
Antichrist in song, while his supporters did the same for the pope and insulted Catholic
Woodcuts were another form of propaganda. The combination of bold graphics with a
smattering of text, printed as a broadsheet, could convey messages to the illiterate or
semi-literate and serve as a visual aid for preachers.
Luther remarked that ―without images we can neither think nor understand anything.‖
Some religious woodcuts were elaborate, with complex allusions and layers of meaning
that would only have been apparent to the well-educated. ―Passional Christi und
Antichristi‖, for example, was a series of images contrasting the piety of Christ with the
decadence and corruption of the pope. Some were astonishingly crude and graphic, such
as ―The Origin of the Monks‖ (see picture), showing three devils excreting a pile of
he best of them were produced by Luther's friend Lucas Cranach. Luther's opponents
responded with woodcuts of their own: ―Luther's Game of Heresy‖ (see beginning of this
article) depicts him boiling up a stew with the help of three devils, producing fumes from
the pot labelled falsehood, pride, envy, heresy and so forth.
Printers in Leipzig were banned from publishing or selling anything by Luther or his
allies, but material printed elsewhere still flowed into the city.
What they had was lots of Catholic pamphlets, ―but what they have in over-abundance is
desired by no one and cannot even be given away.‖
The Edict of Worms in 1521 warned that the spread of Luther's message had to be
prevented, otherwise ―the whole German nation, and later all other nations, will be
infected by this same disorder.‖ But it was too late—the infection had taken hold in
Germany and beyond. To use the modern idiom, Luther's message had gone viral. In the early years of the Reformation expressing support for Luther's views, through
preaching, recommending a pamphlet or singing a news ballad directed at the pope, was
dangerous. By stamping out isolated outbreaks of opposition swiftly, autocratic regimes
discourage their opponents from speaking out and linking up. A collective-action
problem thus arises when people are dissatisfied, but are unsure how widely their
dissatisfaction is shared, as Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North
Carolina, has observed in connection with the Arab spring.
Amid the outbreaks of unrest in early 2011, however, social-media websites enabled lots
of people to signal their preferences en masse to their peers very quickly, in an
―informational cascade‖ that created momentum for further action.
The surge in the popularity of pamphlets in 1523-24, the vast majority of them in favour
of reform, served as a collective signalling mechanism.
―It was the superabundance, the cascade of titles, that created the impression of an
overwhelming tide, an unstoppable movement of opinion…Pamphlets and their
purchasers had together created the impression of irresistible force.‖ Although Luther had
been declared a heretic in 1521, and owning or reading his works was banned by the
church, the extent of local political and popular support for Luther meant he escaped
execution and the Reformation became established in much of Germany.
Robert Darnton, an historian at Harvard University, who has studied information-sharing
networks in pre-revolutionary France, argues that ―the marvels of communication
technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a
sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before
the days of television and the internet.‖
Modern digital networks may be able to do it more quickly, but even 500 years ago the
sharing of media could play a supporting role in precipitating a revolution. Today's
social-media systems do not just connect us to each other: they also link us to the past.
Social media: Did Twitter and Facebook really build a global revolution?
Protesters mapped their uprisings, and the violence that followed, adapting their online
cartography in real time to reports gathered by text message and Facebook updates.
After only a few weeks watching the events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, it seemed
conclusive: This was the global revolution that Twitter built – that, maybe, only Twitter
and other technologies could have built.
"These technologies collectively – everything from cellphone cameras to Twitter – are
disruptive not just of other technologies like landlines or newspapers, which the military
could shut down, but [of] the whole social construct. Social media is really a catalytic
part," says Peter Hirshberg
Two years ago, Iranian pro-democracy activists protested against the re-election
of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as the world watched its Twitter feeds. In a country with so few foreign journalists on the ground, and where information was so
tightly managed, the Green Revolution was quickly dubbed "the Twitter revolution."
When the uprising was crushed, the "cyber-topians," as one writer calls the digital
revolution enthusiasts, were chagrined. They seemed naive for believing that even
"Tweets heard round the world" would bring democracy with them.
Analysts and observers say social media networks were used in the Arab Spring in two
distinct ways: as organizing tools and as broadcasting platforms.
"Without social media," says Omar Amer, a representative of the Libyan Youth
Movement, based in Britain, "the global reaction to Libya would have been much softer,
and very much delayed."
Al Jazeera English, the first outlet to jump on the story, relied heavily on social media to
inform its reporting. "One protester in Benghazi told me, 'It is our job to protest, and it is
your job to tell the world what is happening,' " says Mr. Amer, who administers a
Facebook page for the youth movement.
the international euphoria about social networking may be misplaced when it comes to
organizing uprisings. Deeply rooted cultures of online activism were more important than
the newest social networking brands.
She pegs the start of bloggers' networking and activism globally to 2000 or 2001. In
Tunisia, she points out, it was not a known social media brand but a popular Tunisian
blog and online news aggregator called Nawaat that played a key role in pushing events
In Syria, in fact, one blogger says it was old-fashioned activism that pushed the digital
world into the fight against President Bashar al-Assad.
"The street led the bloggers," says Marcell Shewaro, who left Syria for Cairo on June 19,
after veiled threats from the government over her three-year-old Arabic blog,
marcellita.com, which she says has about 50,000 readers a month.
That feeling of not being alone brought people together in a way that literally saved lives
in Tahrir Square, saysYasser Alwan, a photographer in Cairo
Jillian York, who has been following old and new media in the Arab world for several
years, says the symbiosis between off-line activity and online activism is critical to how
protests move forward.
"Egypt had longstanding digital activists, who for a long time were using these platforms
for their own causes.... They already [knew] what they were doing and how to use these
platforms for activism, so when the time came, they knew exactly where to turn."
Most famously, the murder of Khaled Said, in 2010, prompted online outrage – and
organizing. The young man was allegedly murdered by police in Alexandria, Egypt, after
he posted a video of their corruption online. His death caused an outburst of online
A quarter of all Facebook users in the Middle East are Egyptian, From January to April this year – the height of the Tahrir uprising – membership on the
social site increased by 2 million,
Fewer than 5 percent of people in Libya even use the Internet, according to the United
Nations' Human Development Report.
Printed pamphlets were powerful in the American and French revolutions. When
[Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini came back to power in Iran [in 1979], his revolution ...
was spread by cassette tapes," says Mr. Hirshberg.
His visit to Argentina coincided with antigovernment riots that were spurred by the
country's peso crisis.
There was mass organization of neighborhood groups through the Internet.... There was
no way to control popular opinion or behavior because it was being organized essentially
invisibly in online communication – in the chat rooms and on the e-mail lists of early
As social networks have gotten more sophisticated, network specialists say, it's been
harder for governments to maintain the kind of mass silence that corruption and abuse
"Therefore, the very simple tools of repression" – silence and secrecy – "are no longer
operative, unless you're willing to use the ultimate tool, the Tiananmen Square approach
of putting up tanks and killing ... people." Mr. Espuelas.
The Chinese authorities do their best to censor politically sensitive news and information
from social networking services, or SNS, and they are a lot better at it than any other
government in the world.
the Chinese are most sophisticated in understanding, monitoring, and manipulating social
media," says Bill Bishop
Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are all inaccessible in China without sophisticated
software that allow users to jump the censors' "Great Firewall."
Still, more than half of the 460 million-plus Chinese citizens with Internet access use
copies of those networks, such as Sina Weibo, an enhanced Twitter clone, or RenRen, a
When a herder in Inner Mongolia was run over and killed last May by a coal truck, for
example, and local people began protesting against Chinese-run coal mines, the censors
unsuccessfully banned all mention of the demonstrations in traditional and new media,
but the local authorities also moved swiftly to calm the situation using both security
forces and promises of justice to the herders.
Also in May, Qian Mingqi bombed three government offices in Jiangxi Province, killing
himself and two other people. He had hinted at his intentions in one of his last postings
on Weibo, the Twitter clone; his earlier posts descri