Positive Cynicism – The Twitter side of life

Aaron Davis

Aaron R. Davis

Aaron is shooting the breeze with friends.

Aaron is digging Pepsi Throwback.

Aaron is worried about the patch of dead skin on his shin.

Aaron is looking forward to the season finale of How I Met Your Mother.

As you can see, Aaron is giving away valuable personal information.

At least, according to NPR’s John Ridley I am.

That’s what he wrote in a recent column. After spending half of his column decrying the faddishness of Facebook and Twitter, he then gets to the real topic at hand: the false equating of indiscretion with the invasion of personal privacy:

“But my real issue with social networking sites isn’t their faddishness.

“It’s the hypocrisy that goes with them.

“We claim to be a nation of people who take our privacy very seriously. Just mention the idea of warrantless wiretaps and expect to get hit up with a congressional investigation.

“But give somebody an avatar and a URL, and he can’t tweet, post or hyperlink enough personal information about himself to as many people as possible.”

For a political columnist, there’s no personal issue that can’t be linked to a political issue with only the tiniest bit of intellectual dishonesty. Or, to give Ridley the benefit of the doubt, maybe he’s just missed the point.

The American government deciding it can go through all of my files at a whim and monitor my phone calls, working out a complete (and probably erroneous, given my propensity for bad jokes) psychological profile and giving themselves access to my bank accounts, job history, social security number, driving record, financial history, etc is invasion of privacy.

Me tweeting that I just had the best double cheeseburger ever at Dairy Queen is me being conversational. At its worst, it’s indiscreet. I realize there are a very, very select few who would care about this “personal information,” but it’s hardly the same thing as just giving out my PIN number over the Internet and hoping no one ever finds it.

See, the way Twitter (or Facebook or Blogger, for those of us who still use it) works is that I get to tell you whatever I want to about myself. The choice is mine, and the “personal information” that I really liked Pineapple Express or that I think Nancy Pelosi is being scapegoated is something you can either ignore or take an interest in. But what I tell you is just that – what I tell you. It’s not stolen from me without my knowledge and used in whatever way someone else sees fit to have some measure of control or power over me. Can you see the gigantic difference in the two concepts he’s trying to say are the same thing? You could drive an aircraft carrier through that and still have a lot of room on either side.

Aaron is not buying John Ridley’s weak, cranky argument.

The other point that Ridley misses is the change we’ve had in the way we socially network offline. It’s a cliché to say that my generation spends most of their time indoors, but we sure do. Our upbringings have been a whirlwind of taking all of the things you used to have to go out and spend time with people to do and moving them into our own homes. We killed the arcade and put the video games in our bedrooms and living rooms. We took computers that used to take up entire rooms and put them on our desktops, and they keep getting smaller. We took the movie theater experience and made it accessible from the couch. We took an entire music industry and shunted it to little handheld portable devices. Our “friends” are people on a computer screen we may have never met, and most of what we want comes to us at the click of a button. You can order pizza online, read books online and even have sex online. Some people go to school online. Some people even go to their jobs online.

And when you’re living online, you don’t have to develop the social skills that go with being a member of an outside community. Just look at the comments on YouTube sometime, or try to play Xbox Live. You’d think everyone in the world had, overnight, turned into a gay-bashing Holocaust denier with Tourette’s syndrome. The filters are off and the crazy is spilling out into social acceptability. You can see it in the media. It’s okay for FHM to put 16 year-old Miley Cyrus on their list of 100 Sexiest Women. It’s okay for Rush Limbaugh to equate President Obama’s middle name with the now-accepted stupidity that all Muslims are evil terrorists. It’s okay for Jenny McCarthy to do her part to bring back eradicated diseases which kill children by selling the concept that vaccinations are dangerous. It’s okay for Carrie Prejean to be a bigot, because we have to respect peoples’ beliefs, even if those beliefs are harmful and wrong. It’s okay for America to actually have a debate over the benefits of torture instead of condemning it.

Aaron often feels like the amount of crazy stupidity online is making his brain slower.

If Twitter and Facebook help curb some of the stupid and tone down the display of assholery, they’ve done a valuable service to the world. And if it makes people better communicators, that too is a good thing. Because my generation has been slowly but surely returning to a point where it craves community and friendship, and so we’ve been creating social networks with the idea of taking all of society and moving it inside. We are, in our little ways, making a new community that is perfectly comfortable with online communication. We’ve been quietly weeding out the harmful ideas and leaving them behind, the way all societies have over their history, and I think we’re making a good faith effort to be honest. Sure, some of it is America’s narcissism, but I think there’s more to it than that.

I used to say that Twitter, with its 140-character limit, was a good indicator of how little we have to say to each other. But now that I’ve been using it, I think I was wrong. It’s a network that forces you to be selective about what you want to share. It makes you think about what you want to say to certain people and what you wouldn’t want the entire world to know about you. Because you’re going to get the feedback right away. And even if no one on your network knows you in “real life,” embarrassment is still embarrassment and it always sucks.

Aaron is surprisingly optimistic that the human race is sometimes on the right course.

So when John Ridley asks, “Seriously, does valuable broadband space need to be taken up with announcements in that creepy Facebook third-person-ese that ‘John is enjoying two-for-one margaritas with the rest of the IT Team at T.G.I. Fridays’?” the obvious answer is no. Of course is doesn’t have to be. It’s not important in the grander sense. But it’s also not a security leak in valuable info that is going to compromise John’s safety or free will.

And when John Ridley asks, “Where is the expectation of privacy anymore? Or, more correctly, where is the expectation that people will keep their private nonsense to themselves so that those of us who still like to communicate personal information with one person at a time don’t have to get caught up in somebody else’s e-mail circles or listen to their one-sided cell phone conversations?” he seems to be forgetting that one of the benefits of an online social network is that you can pick and choose your own access to other people as easily as you pick and choose what access you want people to have.

In other words, don’t sign up to follow these people.

Aaron is filtering his online social network.

Aaron is looking forward to another double cheeseburger from Dairy Queen.

Aaron needs to make a serious effort to lose some weight.

Aaron is having a nice day today.

Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at samuraifrog@yahoo.com.

  1. Joelle May 19, 2009
  2. JeT May 19, 2009
  3. Lee May 19, 2009

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