A picture’s worth a thousand words—thoughts on internet privacy

Or, what happens when your face shows up on Cult of Mac.

Maybe you’ve heard about this app, Girls Around Me, that has been getting some attention recently for being, well, creeptastic. If you haven’t, let me Google that for you, because I’m not really interested in linking directly to John Brownlee’s post, the one on Gawker, or any of the other ones that people have linked me to since Friday.

Go ahead, pick an article, read up—I’ll wait.

So, turns out John lives in Boston and I’m guessing he spends some time writing over in my neck of the woods, because when he put together some screenshots for his post, my face ended up in one of them.


I first found out about this on Friday afternoon while I was finishing up lunch and getting ready for a conference call—a notification popped up that someone had mentioned me on Facebook. I went over to see what was up and found a link to the article, along with a message from a high school friend I hadn’t heard from in years, also pointing out the article.

I’ve gotten a number of messages, emails and texts since then, all from very well meaning people, most containing some version of the message: you’re in this creepy app! Check your privacy settings!

It looked a lot like Twitter DM spam, only it wasn’t. (Many thanks to my friend Sean for keeping things light and pointing out: at least it’s a good picture.)

My first reaction to this was, “I guess that’s what I get for checking in at my office.”

My second was, “wait, WHAT? What I get? For checking in at my office?”

Let me preface this by saying, yes, I think this is a creepy app, yes I’m glad that Foursquare revoked its API access, and yes, it has made me think long and hard about what value I find from using Foursquare publicly, and whether that’s “worth” whatever the trade offs are. For now, I’ve changed my settings on Foursquare to private, because I haven’t quite made up my mind.

On the one hand, I’ve made some Twitter-friends with people because we’ve both been checked in at the same concerts, and I’ve found it pretty useful at meetups and other social media conferences and events. On the other hand, mostly I just use it for myself, with a relatively small group of friends, so maybe there’s no reason to use it publicly.

I will say that the only “bad” thing that’s ever happened to me from using Foursquare publicly is that my face ended up in John’s article.

Here’s what’s getting at me though:

Moreover, the girls (and men!) shown in Girls Around Me all had the power to opt out of this information being visible to strangers, but whether out of ignorance, apathy or laziness, they had all neglected to do so. This was all public information.

That’s a quote from the Cult of Mac piece. And now I have a problem, because I’m not ignorant, apathetic, or lazy.

I’ve made a choice to participate publicly in the internet. I try to be careful about what I make accessible and what I share with everyone, and for the most part, I think I’ve found a balance that works pretty well for me. Have I slipped up? Sure. But, it’s important to me that I try out new tools and apps and that I understand how various social networks work, what features and functionality they have to offer. Some of that’s because I’m an information junkie, but mostly it’s because I’ve spent the past four years working in online community management and social media, so staying on top of this is pretty relevant to my career.

Now, I can understand why a lot of people don’t want to put any information out there about themselves, or why they only make it available to a select group of people. I also understand that you look at this app and the article and your first reaction is “Thank GOD he’s not talking about me.” I know when my friends and family reached out to me, it was only with the best intentions.

The whole tenor of this, however, has been that if you are in this app, if you have been posting information publicly, especially if you’re a woman, you’re doing something wrong. Shut it down, ladies—someone on the internet might see you. Kashmir Hill shares some good insight on this over at Forbes in her piece, “The Reaction to ‘Girls Around Me’ Was Far More Disturbing Than the ‘Creepy’ App Itself.”

This is where I get stuck. Checking in at your office, or a coffee shop, or The Independent (which is a great bar, by the way), whether publicly or not, doesn’t mean you’re “asking” to get stalked, or mugged, or anything else. People generally don’t ask for bad things to happen to them, and by and large, I don’t really believe anyone deserves to have something bad happen to them. At the same time, I don’t believe that most people are stalkers, or thieves, or otherwise out to do me harm, and the amount of mental energy necessary to view the world that way is quite simply more than I can spend.

Of course, I think it’s important to take precautions, to do what you need to do to feel safe when we live in a world that feels increasingly unsafe. But I also think it’s important to take a step back from time to time and think about what we’re actually saying. I couldn’t remove all the information about me on the internet if I wanted to, and it really wouldn’t be in my best interest to do that.

I don’t believe that having a public persona online needs to be a risky enterprise, and it seems like plenty of people are able to manage that without being attacked, stalked, or otherwise targeted. If we’re saying that’s only true for one half of the population, then I don’t think this is really a conversation about internet privacy as much as it’s a conversation about whether it’s safe to be a woman and live in public.

If the answer to that is “no,” then I think we’ve got bigger problems than Girls Around Me.