Virulent Word of Mouse

December 9, 2009

Lying and Tiger and Boors, Oh My! Privacy and Prudence Online.


The New York Times ran an article about careless text messaging by philanderers.  Recent news about Tiger Woods’ dalliances inspired the theme. In case you missed it, here is the article.

Here is my point: The article has one intriguing point, many salacious examples, and missed the big picture because it focused on sexual affairs, not human affairs.

The article starts with an intriguing point: text messages do not disappear easily, and that has consequences for those having an affair. The text messages can be used in a court of law, or in the court of public opinion. In short, text is evidence.

I am a frequent reader of online stories. This one caught my eye because of what it did not say next. It expressed no alarm about the erosion of privacy.  On the one hand, it is obvious why it did not explore that theme. On a deeper inspection, however, that silence is worth understanding and exploring. That is what this post will do.

Salacious examples

It is an old truism. What makes for a catchy news stories? Sex, scandals, and/or corruption. This article had all three.

The article provides several salacious examples — examples that most readers will file away under the category of “what were they thinking?”

* Tiger Woods former mistress produced text to prove she had had an affair.

* The Mayor of Detroit had an affair with an aide, lied about it under oath, and then found himself contradicted by his own text messages.

It just makes one wonder about Tiger’s and the mayor’s judgment.

The oddest story comes from Senator John Ensign. He programmed the phone number for his mistress — who was the wife of a close friend — into his cell phone as “Aunt Judy”.  The article does not explain why, but it seems that the false label was to hide her identity as a frequent phone contact.

It makes me wonder why he could not just memorize a phone number he called frequently, but never mind that.

It gets better. The affair began to unravel precisely because of the label. When Ensign’s friend borrowed the cell phone he grew suspicious because he recognized his wife’s phone number. That led him to ask why his wife was labeled as “Aunt Judy” in his friends’ cell phone, which is a bit weird, after all. It unraveled from there.

The key point of the article is summarized by the following quote: “People who have something really private to say probably shouldn’t do it in a text on their cellphone,” said Marc Rotenberg, who is the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Rotenberg’s quote got me thinking about the reporter’s purpose in writing this article. Does the reporter really think many people need to learn that lesson? Maybe I am wrong, but I would have guessed that most readers do not have affairs to hide, and, therefore, might not need Rotenberg’s quote.

If you accept that premise, then follow the logic a little further… If this article is not aimed at men having affairs in need of basic advice about how to hide it, who is it aimed at? Good reporters have a way of letting readers see themselves in a story. So I began to wonder: who does this journalist forecast as the reader?

Deeper lesson

Looking more deeply, here is what I noticed: Nobody quoted in the article comes to the defense of the philanderers. To be sure, that is not surprising, but let’s develop its implications.

The first implication is obvious. The article does not anticipate that philanderers are the main reader.

The second one is also obvious, once it is stated. If there is a moral theme to this article it belongs to the victim. The article includes several quotes that are sympathetic for the victim, the spouse, in this case. Surely this focus is deliberate, since the article does not discuss the pain of the mistress, which follows standard Puritan norms for this topic.

The article even pursues an angle that plays up the role of text. It discusses the incremental additional pain for a spouse who confronts text instead of mere rumor. (That is the note on which the article ends).

And so I came to my conclusion: The journalist is anticipating one of two readers. One type of reader is a victim of an affair. The second reader, and probably more common, is the sympathetic friend of somebody who was a victim.

Back to the main point. What does this say about the online world? Take a couple steps away from that observation about sympathy for the victim. From the perspective of the victim, it is hard to find little wrong with the erosion of privacy. It catches philanderers, after all.

To be sure, the article makes no explicit judgment about whether the philanderers deserved their fate, but the embarrassment and scandal that comes with these titillating stories implies judgment, as does the sympathy for the victim.

In short, the philanderers got caught and the lack of privacy served this purpose.

Any missing big points?

I read a lot of articles about the online world. Frankly, most articles about privacy online today do not stress the themes found in this one in the New York Times.  Maybe that is because there are few affairs taking place online. Or, what is more likely, most articles stress the bad aspects of the erosion of privacy, and, unlike this article, have topics that lend themselves to stressing those bad aspects.

More precisely, the most common articles stress the unanticipated consequences of the erosion of privacy.

The standard examples have become almost a cliche of modern life:

* Somebody at work wrote an email critical of their boss and forwarded it to everyone, cc:ing their boss at the same time;

* A social networking site let users know about products for which they recently searched, but this ended up spoiling the surprise behind a gift for a friend;

* And (my favorite) police caught someone for petty theft and the police simply went to their Facebook page to find their other friends, some of whom looked just like the other suspects seen fleeing the scene of the crime.

Yet, the article in the New York Times definitely does not build on this more familiar theme. It does not imply, for example, that the philanderers were unwitting victims of the new rules of new technology.

Of course, it is obvious why not. No major newspaper in the country would publish an article with such a theme. Philanderers never are the good guys in US newspapers.

Look, I am not arguing that US newspapers should make philandering a forgivable sin. I am observing, however, that focusing on the salacious examples distracts the reader from the bigger theme.

In short, we should think about human affairs, not simply sexual affairs. These examples represents a piece of a bigger trend across society.

Getting beyond the salacious

If we look beyond the salacious, what do we find?

First, as I have said in other posts about messaging by soccer moms, the bigger theme lies in the mundane every day uses of information technology. Look at every day social interaction using information technology.

What do we find? Our digital era has one major design feature: it lacks an undo button. That is, it is increasingly expensive to hide personal history.

Indeed, it is very costly, sometimes prohibitively costly, for a user to erase the traces of activities from their own historical past — even a very recent past action!

The lack of an undo button, by itself, leads to all sorts of unexpected events and consequences. And some of those issues are evident in these stories about online affairs.

But for most people such salacious events are irrelevant. The more common experience happens at soccer games, at school events, while driving, while searching, on social web sites, and in a multitude of minor little ways.

Let’s go beyond that. The lack of an undo button interacts with the second major design feature of our era: pervasive social experimentation involving the Internet.

By itself, experimentation also would lead to new issues and events, but so what? In general, life is full of experimentation, so that too does not seem so outrageous.

What is outrageous? Well, the lack of choice. Unless you want to live like an outcast or the Amish, it is increasingly expensive to raise barriers against interacting with others online. There is no selective opting in or out of the experimenting in modern life. A functional modern life involves interacting with the new technology and with others’ use of the new technology, like it or not.

It is the combination of no opt-out and no undo button that really leads to odd and/or interesting places. We all are stuck in a world of experimenting with no way out and no reversibility. Marc Rotenberg’s little advice notwithstanding, in this world it is impossible to forecast all the consequences or evade them. Almost by definition, tomorrow will bring new events and surprises, and we have no choice but to adjust.

So here is my larger point. I do not file this story about texting by philanderers under “what were they thinking?” Rather, I file it under “another human activity reshaped by the Internet.” As with the reshaping of many aspects of human affairs, the online world also has changed the conduct of sexual affairs.

Here is another way to say it. The online world has begun to intrude on every archetype of  human activity.  No surprise, it has also intruded on sexual affairs, another human activity that has been around for quite some time.

And the experiment is far from over. We are not done yet with the unexpected and unwitting consequences.

1 Comment »

  1. Very interesting subject. I sometimes wonder what the political landscape will look like in 10 to 20 years, when a candidate’s entire thought history is researchable. I harbor strong opinions that may ultimately be wrong, and I am certainly not alone in this regard. What will the consequence professionally and politically be for someone’s, say, position on global warming (to name just one controversial subject)?

    Comment by David — December 9, 2009 @ 1:33 pm | Reply


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