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[ NNSquad ] Social Media + Stupid: The Weiner Warning

                 Social Media + Stupid: The Weiner Warning


Greetings.  Back in early 2003, I used one of the columns I was
writing for "Wired" to discuss issues associated with pornography
involving children on the Internet -- in particular the
criminalization of persons who view such materials.  The impetus for
the essay was the then recent arrests of Peter Townshend ("The Who")
and Paul Reubens ("Pee-wee Herman") on child pornography charges.

I assumed in advance that the column in question (the title of which
was chosen by my editor, not by me) would be controversial -- and
indeed it was ( http://j.mp/mnWZeT [Wired] ).

Townshend's case was particularly interesting, since he insisted that
he was accessing the associated sites as part of autobiographical
research involving his own abuse as a child.

In any case, a focus of that column -- not in any way to defend the
horror of kiddie porn -- was to explore how "ease of access" on the
Internet might cause persons to actually act on impulses that they
probably never would have indulged in the brick and mortar world --
not an excuse for behavior, but rather an explanation and warning.

While the situation with Rep. Anthony Weiner apparently doesn't
involve children, and has many differences from the cases mentioned
above, there is one key similarity.  Weiner appears to have allowed
himself to combine the ease of "social" contact on the Web, with what
can only be called his own stupid, reckless, and self-destructive

Already, I'm hearing calls for broad controls and monitoring of social
media, ostensibly triggered by Weiner's revelations.  While likely to
be easy fodder for some politicians, such demands must be rejected.

By any reasonable analysis of this situation, and of social media more
generally, we must place responsibility squarely at the feet of the
individuals who instigate activities such as Weiner's.  Associated
demands for social monitoring restrictions and eavesdropping would on
the other hand do grave harm to privacy and free speech.

Still, as I implied in that old column, it is also important for us
all to understand the practical implications in the "virtual world" of
the Net, particularly as we often feel that we know people well on the
Web -- when in actuality we're only communicating through a relative
soda straw, compared with the vastly larger totality of actual human

I'm not a psychologist, but I first noticed the phenomenon of
"fantasizing" regarding remote network users via email decades ago --
long before the popularization of the term "social media" -- during
the earliest years of ARPANET.  Then, as now, the primary interface
for communications was text, and (perhaps fortunately for us back
then) the concept of sending photographs via the Net was itself
largely a fantasy in the early days.

But it seemed clear even then that the Net provided an ideal "growth
medium" for compartmenting our lives into "virtual" vs. "real"
segments, and that any tendency toward less inhibition, more
exhibitionism, rapid anger, and even depression, might be amplified
and exacerbated via some Net communications.

With the rise of social media as we know it today, and with major
portions of the world's population now engaging in related activities
sometimes for many hours daily, it is more crucial than ever that we
understand -- and indeed also help our children to understand -- the
responsibilities associated with using social media, and how best to
avoid making the kinds of mistakes that Weiner, and many others, have
made to their detriment.

Attempts to blame such situations on the technology or openness of
social media -- or of the Web in general -- are misguided, and in fact
are likely to often be accompanied by ulterior motives aimed at
restricting free speech and imposing government Internet controls in
various guises.

To his credit, Rep. Weiner has explicitly not blamed Twitter nor the
Internet for his current dilemma -- but other parties are already
attempting to use his situation to their own advantage, toward their
goals of imposing their own wills on the Net and its users.

Just a reminder that when it comes to the Web, our actions have
consequences, and ultimately that blaming the Internet when we behave
stupidly makes about as much sense as blaming the weatherman for a
rainy day.

Lauren Weinstein (lauren@vortex.com): http://www.vortex.com/lauren
Co-Founder: People For Internet Responsibility: http://www.pfir.org
 - Network Neutrality Squad: http://www.nnsquad.org
 - Global Coalition for Transparent Internet Performance: http://www.gctip.org
 - PRIVACY Forum: http://www.vortex.com
Member: ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Blog: http://lauren.vortex.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/laurenweinstein 
Google Buzz: http://j.mp/laurenbuzz 
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800 / Skype: vortex.com