by: Kevin Sparrow
I will admit I have a slightly creepy dependence on Facebook. There is a weird validation if I can respond to a friend’s status update from “seconds ago,” and I track my newsfeed like I’m an avid vintage record collector scouring the Classifieds. I venture to guess I’m not alone, and with the mutual sharing between me and my friends, I often lose site of who else might be checking out my virtual life. Allow me to introduce Girls Around Me, an app that allows users to track where any female who can be tracked by a check-in is catalogued for one’s browsing pleasure.
Purchasable on iTunes until recently, Girls Around Me points to fundamental cracks in the privacy moderation of our social media. Allowing open access to APIs and promoting an atmosphere of “Sharing” creates a culture where development outpaces consideration, so developers create what is technologically feasible with less thought to real life ramifications, and consumers are not informed on self-protective actions they can take in these realms.
To understand this phenomenon, we might want to kindly rewind back to the mid-90s (bonus points if you’re using dial-up), the initiation of this friction of privacy and public intimacy. Ondi Timoner’s documentary We Live in Public follows the work of Josh Harris, a pioneer in online media, who created the first internet television channel in Pseudo.com and the “Quiet” project, which recruited 100 people to live together in a bunker space for a month and watch everything each of their housemates did on constantly streaming television channels. Not so different from the video minutiae we witness on YouTube and other services today. As information and technology replace traditional industries, social currency is gaining force as a major commodity.
Omniscience seems to be the end goal for the modern social arena and having influence over the social lives of those nearest is the most straightforward starting point. I am one to avoid the slippery slope line of argument but for broader context–and knowing that TheDirty and other sites that allow users to post about others’ behavior already exist and have broad reach–it seems imminent that apps could be created that display even more sensitive information in real time. Perceived sexual behavior of someone in proximity is already a possibility with iPhone app Chec-mate, which allows for mutual sharing of STI statuses and a proposed Facebook app that could post visits to sexual health testing centers could easily get the Girls Around Me treatment and flag everyone nearby who has any possibility of ever even hearing about STIs, fostering judgment instead of discussion. Or, what about an app that points out all the LGBTQ-identified people in the area? This is problematic when done without anyone’s knowledge or consent, and, though a resource for LGBTQ individuals who are seeking others, could also be used negatively by transphobic and homophobic people.
Much of the possible uses of this technology are more problematic than inherently damaging, but it is important to start the dialogue on how we want our information shared. The first action to take is to protect your own privacy; in response to Girls Around Me, Cult of Mac produced a comprehensive primer on how to effectively set FourSquare and Facebook privacy settings to avoid personal information being disseminated beyond those you intend to receive it. Additionally, have the conversation with your friends on how they can also protect themselves and why using these apps creates a harmful social environment both digitally and in the flesh. In an environment of security, we can use our social networking skills in the service of good instead of the forces of creepy.
Kevin Sparrow is a Chicago writer who is interested in Queerness is both a favorite subject and pastime. His education in movies-writing has proved that he is adept at powering up computers and elementary keyboard use. Sparrow’s short stories, poetry and essays have appeared in that order in Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly and LIES/ISLE, as well as on the website Be Yr Own Queero.