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Business - Written by on Thursday, October 2, 2008 9:24 - 1 Comment

Student Parties Exposed by Community Group’s Scandal Pics

I’m back studying at Queen’s University, and last weekend was Homecoming. In recent years, Queen’s Homecoming has become an annual pilgrimage for Southern Ontario’s Net Gen. Thousands of them, from Ottawa to Windsor, descend on Kingston for a 24-hour party that begins with 9 AM pancake keggers and culminates with a booze-fuelled riot that sees hundreds arrested, dozens injured, and three years ago, a car flipped over and lit on fire.

A group of Kingston residents, fed up with students’ intolerable behavior and the inability of police and university administrators to stop it, have turned to transparency as a weapon. On Homecoming, and for the past month, members of SaveOurNeighborhood.ca have been patrolling Kingston’s student neighborhood to take pictures of young people committing debauchery and posting them online for the world to see.

By subjecting individuals to a greater level of personal transparency, SaveOurNeighborhood.ca hopes to eliminate unwanted behavior by stigmatizing perpetrators, their parents, and the university.

We have seen Facebook profiles revolutionize the transparency of our personal lives. And we have seen “inappropriate content” on them become a liability to our personal and professional reputations. But we have also maintained, and increasingly exercised, control over who gets access to that information.

But students do not choose to be in pictures on SaveOurNeighborhood.ca. In fact, the express purpose of each photo is to be a maximally visible liability to a student’s reputation. Individuals are now subject to the same hostile transparency inflicted on companies by activists, on politicians by journalists and smear campaigns, and on celebrities by gossip rags.

This is not the only example of the internet fueling a hostile increase in the transparency of individuals’ personal lives. High school students have begun using Facebook to create hate groups for disliked classmates. We have all been–and likely currently are–members of an informal group of friends that bond over a distaste for a common acquaintance. It’s horrible, but it’s true. And while you may not be mean to this person’s face, they probably know that you’re not their number one fan. The novel feature of the Facebook hate group is that it’s public. It’s meant to publicly stigmatize someone outside, and long after they’ve left, the hostile social network. The victim’s university classmates, dating prospects, potential employers, and even children will examine all the unpleasant things written about them years ago by high school bullies.

I used to know a young woman who suffered from a disability. When she added me to Facebook, I saw that someone from her hometown high school had posted a cruel comment about her handicap on her wall. It can be difficult to make new friends when their impressions of you can be so directly influenced by old enemies.

The Wikinomics Blog has often argued that companies need to embrace transparency. And particularly, not to stifle but to engage with critics. Should this principle be extended to our personal lives?

How should students respond to SaveOurNeighborhood.ca? Change their behavior to protect their reputation? Demand photos of them be removed? Or engage with the community group to publicly address their concerns?

Should Facebook hate groups be disbanded by school administrators? Or should they become forums for students to find out why it is that no one likes them?

And should our profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn, and LavaLife, be places for friends, employers, coworkers, and romantic partners to critically and publicly–and hopefully constructively–discuss our personal and professional shortcomings?

It seems clear that our personal lives are being subjected to increasing personal transparency, and that transparency is increasingly coming from sources that are hostile towards us. As a society we have three choices: increase our conformity, hide behind renewed privacy rights, or begin to talk openly, honestly, and publically about what we don’t like about each other. That last option might not be as bad as it first sounds.

1 Comment

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ben leefield
Oct 5, 2008 14:41

Hi Will

I particularly liked your piece – it was articulate and well thought out.

It clearly addresses the issue that society hasn’t yet caught up with the technology in terms of a consensus of opinion over the issues you have raised. I seem to remember this theme occurring in Wikinomics when I read it a while back. I suspect that when society does, the agreement might be fragmented across genders, generations and nationalities – more or less as it seems to be now, but with at least some of those questions having been debated and a range of answers being available.

My own personal view (having recently launched a people search website WikiWorldBook which incorporates the ability to create a profile of yourself, so that you can be easily found and contacted without having to reveal your contact details) is that different people have different levels of concern about how much information is on the web about them – whether they put it out there or someone else. Obviously there is a level of information that could leave you defrauded which is to be avoided by all – unless you have deep pockets or a masochistic streak – but apart from that, it is the young that are breaking down the barriers of what is acceptable publically, whilst older generations tend to be much more cautious because the public environment of the internet is alien to them.

As a firm believer in transparency, I therefore come down on the side of the young. I think its ok if all your faults are shown up because we are all flawed, and if all our flaws are public, who can cast the first stone? Maybe simplistic and naive, but that is the way the internet is heading regardless. I read a story recently about how George Bush got re-elected the second time around because the early voting procedures in certain states meant that too many people had cast their votes before the story came out about his adolescent loss of driving licence due to drink driving. Otherwise the pollsters strongly suspect he wouldn’t have made it. In future, that won’t happen – George Bush’s youth would be open to all, but so would his opponents. In England we don’t expect our politicians to be lily white – indeed, if there is no dirt, we wonder where its being hidden and in some parts of Europe, they would seemingly prefer that their politicians definitely aren’t – how else would you explain the election of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy?

So, to cut a long story short, there is going to be more about us on the net in future, whether we like it or not, but society will in turn adjust its expectations to reflect this, just as the Social Contract we have has never been something fixed. Pillars of virtue are a dangerous myth and only greater personal transparency can help to dispel them – just as in the western world we know that the post-war movement towards greater transparency in companies / corporations has been hugely beneficial (the current transactional opaqueness in banking arrangements is separate from corporate governance), so similar transparency in people’s personal lives should bring a combination of less hypocrisy and more social responsibility. I won’t be casting the first stone.

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