Foot fetishes and internet norms

A couple of weeks ago, I did a quick interview with Jenna Wortham of the New York Times on the issue of digital identities. She was trying to figure out an experience she’d had where someone she’d met on an online dating site had found her on Foursquare and connected her identities. Was this something to worry about? Or merely how we expect the world to work in a world of online performance and digital disclosure?

The answer I offered ended up in her piece, which ran in the paper last Saturday: it’s still possible to create an online persona that’s difficult to trace to a specific person, which is important for whistleblowers and leakers. But if you’re using social media tools the way they’re intended – to share your interests, to meet people, to publish about your life – you’re going to leak data in a way that makes it easy to piece together different facets of your personality into a single whole.

The story that broke yesterday about Jets coach Rex Ryan is a better example of this phenomenon than any hypothetical I could have come up with. Barry Petchesky of sports blog Deadspin ran a report yesterday titled “This May or May Not Be Rex Ryan’s Wife Making Foot-Fetish Videos“. Despite the benefit of the doubt given to the coach’s wife in the article title, it’s pretty clear that Petchesky believes the feet in question are Michelle Ryan’s, and that Rex is the videographer. An update to the post includes a screen shot from a dating site where the author – who Petchesky implies is Coach Ryan – writes in unvarnished terms about his sexual preferences and about his wife’s body.

The article has now been picked up by such classy journalistic institutions as the New York Post. And Coach Ryan has now had the memorable experience of ducking questions about his wife’s feet in a press conference, leading to a sentence which may well summarize the perils of being a public figure in the Internet age: “Ryan did not deny, however, that is wife is the star of a series of foot-fetish YouTube videos.”

Petchesky is able to make a pretty good case for the identity of these particular feet because there’s a lot of information available online both about the Ryans, and available on the dating profile – birthdates, height and weight, city of residence. And, of course, there are photos of Ms. Ryan available online for comparison to the woman displaying her feet in the video. As with the suitor who connected Wortham’s Foursquare mayorship and dating profile, Petchesky puts publicly visible data from different sources together and comes up with information about people they didn’t realize they were sharing.

One response to this example might be to berate Rex and Michelle Ryan for their foolishness. Surely, as a highly visible public figure, Rex Ryan could expect an enterprising journalist to connect a series of popular foot fetish videos to an anonymous dating profile, both posted some years back, and then to his biography. Everyone knows that famous people either need better fake online identities or to eschew foot fetish dating sites!

Another response is to bemoan the current state of online and offline journalism, and perhaps society as a whole. A nation in which the sexual peculiarities of a professional sports coach are the target of investigative scrutiny is one well into its decline and eventual fall. Surely this presages the opening of a chain of vomitoria in Manhattan and a pressing need to defend our borders against Visigoths.

Or maybe we’re just at a moment where our norms need to catch up with our technology.

Because people are publishing vastly more data about themselves, it’s possible to make connections between that data and reveal formerly hidden aspects of someone’s online profile. I knew you were single and looking to date, and now I know you’re a regular at this sushi restaurant… which may, in turn, allow me to infer information about your income, your spending, what neighborhood you live in, etc. As Wortham notes, it’s unclear whether it’s socially acceptable to make these connections and inferences. She ends up deciding not to accept her suitor’s invitation because she feels he’s unfairly tilted the playing field, learning more about her than she knows about him.

There are lots of opportunities in life to obtain information about people that most people don’t engage in. When I’m invited to a friend’s house, I don’t rifle through their medicine cabinet to discover what prescription drugs are there, though the information might be interesting or might help me understand and relate to them better. There’s a social norm that suggests we pay attention to what friends make visible in their homes, not what’s hidden away in drawers or cabinets – we generally don’t need technological restrictions (locks) to enforce this norm, as most people wouldn’t want to suffer the consequences such a trespass might have for our friendship.

Norms aren’t automatic – they have to be taught. My friend and colleague Judith Donath observes that teaching your children manners is basically the process of teaching them when to lie (“Grandma, thank you for your gift – I loved it!”) and when not to ask questions they want answers to (“Why is that strange lady with Uncle Joe and what happened to Aunt Jane?”) In the early days of the web, there was a semi-concerted effort to help new users understand prevailing norms in the online space – Virginia Shea’s 1994 book on Netiquette might be the best exemplar of that effort. (It’s hard to know what Shea would make of Petchesky’s investigation, though her Rule 8 – “Respect Other People’s Privacy” – suggests she might have some issues with his behavior.)

We’re at a moment where norms are in flux. In a few years, privacy may not matter as much as a social norm, as Mark Zuckerberg has promised (threatened?). Or we may decide that some measure of personal privacy is essential if we’re all to survive in a world where information can persist forever. Dan Gillmor wrote a provocative essay in 2009 where he suggested that we may need to find a way, societally, to let people off the hook for stupid things they did when they were younger, or we’re going to doom ourselves to a world where the only people who are politically viable are those who are stunningly boring drones. Dan’s not suggesting a technical change, where our digital words start to fade after four years and disappear after seven – he’s suggesting that we need new norms to cope both with online disclosure and digital persistence.

We know that journalists are going to try to make connections between disparate sets of data, either to reveal important truths or to unseat the famous and powerful. We know that marketers will connect disparate pieces of data about our lives so they can more effectively target ads and market products to us. But the existence of new technologies doesn’t make behaviors inevitable. We respond to shifts in technology by building new norms. When we feel really strongly about those norms, we encode them into laws. In five years, it’s possible that what Petchesky did will be so routine that it merits no second thought. Or it’s possible that we might consider it a major transgression, an act inconsistent with how people are supposed to behave online. Or it might be illegal. The point is, we get to choose – individually, collectively and societally.

There are many reasons I disagree with Marshall Poe’s essay “The Internet Changes Nothing“, a screed so reactionary it makes Andrew Keen look like an early ’90s Wired columnist. The assertion I find most baffling in his piece is this one: “The Internet is not maturing. It is mature.” Poe’s essay is worth reading – basically, he’s arguing that there’s nothing new about the Internet – everything we can do online is something we could do offline, and so there’s no need to consider the possibility that the Internet could radically change human behavior. Poe might argue that what happened to Rex Ryan could have happened in a pre-Internet age – perhaps an enterprising reporter might have watched the coach pick up his fetish correspondence from a clandestine PO Box and mounted a sting operation.

My sense is that what happened to Coach Ryan is evidence that the Internet is far from mature. It’s vastly easier in an online world to find information and connect with people who share your interests, no matter how prurient those interests are. It’s easier to imagine that your behavior is anonymous, which may encourage people to take risks and release information they’d otherwise keep very, very private. And it’s easier to build connections between this information as it’s all available from a mouseclick than from a stakeout. All this means that we’re not entirely sure of a reasonable or safe way to act, or what our societal rules should be. As long as those rules are in rapid flux, it seems absurd to say that the Internet changes nothing. Better to say that we don’t know exactly what’s changing and whether we should embrace or fight the change in question.

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