Does social media need an ASBO?

6th April 2012

On March 31, Foursquare removed access to an app entitled, "Girls Around Me," which allowed users to track the publically available locations of women using Foursquare, connect these locations to the women's available data and photos on Facebook, and use the app to show the names and faces of women near each user's location-women who were not using the service and had no knowledge that they were being tracked. After determining the app was in violation of its API policy, Foursquare turned off API access to the app's Russian developer, i-Free innovations-but not before more than 70,000 had downloaded it.

On the WSJ Digits blog, reader reaction ran the gamut.

"They could have made the app much more gender and functionally neutral, but they chose not to – the porny stripper design aesthetic shows they knew what they were doing." A reader with the username Grad Student argued. "They likely knew long before anyone else in their own beta testing how the app was going to be perceived and used and by whom. I agree, the technology they created is incredibly well done technically, but it has to be considered in terms of its actual functionality in the actual (anti)social world it will be used in. From reading their excuse, they just seem to ignore that. The legality is a convenient technical fig leaf for objectifying & tracking random women."

"It's a little ridiculous that people would post information about themselves to the internet and then get angry when people read that information," tbrookside counter-argued. "The entire point of Foursquare is that you're advertising WHERE you are. If you participate in Facebook and don't use the most restrictive profile settings, the entire point of Facebook is that you're advertising WHO you are. So we have people advertising who and where they are, who are now angry that people know who and where they are. It's literally insane."

And responding to Grad Student's discussion of a gender neutral app, ron asked, "just what is wrong with a male wanting to know something about the female's present in various venues as part of their decision on which to visit. Part of the social interaction is communicating with members of the opposite sex in these settings. How is this different, other than the time and cost involved, in visiting a half-dozen different locations to make a stay decision. As stated above, it is not as useful for stalking an individual as various other online facilities. Most of the women that I know are quite capable of handling unwanted conversation in these environments, adept at getting rid of any male who tries to intrude on their "girl-time group" in such a place, and smart enough not to do stupid things like "checking-in" everywhere they go if they have a concern about stalking."

Commodification of the social

Facebook is no stranger to privacy qualms, and this latest setback has stirred current debate regarding the commodification of the social. Have we come to the point where it is acceptable to jump beyond Facebook parameters and use social networking as a means of what mirrors the behaviour of a stalker? Is the user to blame if they willingly utilise apps like Foursquare to post their locations and then receive unwanted attention? Are social relations something to be bought, sold and utilised for profit by developers such as i-Free? In a world where almost all else has become something to be purchased, Michael Sandel's logic says the latter question is a reality that should come as no surprise.

The international financial crisis put distrust in the free market system at a premium, the Occupy movement being a prime example of how widespread anger at Wall Street execs and a unified call for regulation on the concept of greed professes to prevent the same sort of crisis from occurring again. But Harvard philosopher Sandel insists this mindset "is, at best, a partial diagnosis"-one that does little to solve the greater problem and nothing to acknowledge the much broader reality that has come to underlie financial relations. "The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed," Sandel argues in his Atlantic Magazine book adaptation, "What Isn't for Sale?": "It was the reach of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms. To contend with this condition, we need to do more than inveigh against greed; we need to have a public debate about where markets belong-and where they don't."

How Investing Turns Nice People Into Psychopaths

Enter the concept of prosociality as discussed earlier this week by Lynn Stout in her article, "How Investing Turns Nice People Into Psychopaths."  The Cornell Law professor argues that because most behaviour is inherently "prosocial"-meaning most humans can be trusted to engage in ethical behaviour-we tend to ignore the omnipresent good and focus on the bad (hence, why murders, home invasions and the like make the news due to their relatively irregular occurrence). Applying this logic to the use of social media, it can be assumed that most Facebook users are expected to engage within the space in an ethical manner. But if Sandel is correct in his implicit assertion that market reach extends to profiting off of these engagements, Stout's analysis yields disturbing results.

Although socially responsible investment (SRI) funds have been gaining money at a faster rate than the whole of the institutional investing industry, and 12% of all professionally-managed assets in 2010 were managed by SRI funds, Stout points out that 97% or more of people are, to some degree, prosocial. Why, then, is investment in these funds not occurring at a higher rate? Stout points to a 2005 article by Einer Elhauge to support her claim that although people are generally inclined towards prosociality, this does not mean they will make moral decisions in every circumstance. There are certain instances where collective social influence will yield what those outside the sphere consider immoral behaviour-and investing is one of them:

When it comes to investing behavior, the rhetoric of "maximize shareholder value" seems almost deliberately designed to bring out our inner Mr. Hydes. Shareholder-value dogma teaches that it is morally correct for shareholders to pressure managers to raise share price any way possible, without regard for how the corporation impacts stakeholders, society, or the environment. Shareholder value rhetoric also inevitably signals that other investors are behaving selfishly. Finally, it teaches that purely selfish investing decisions, far from harming others, promote better "corporate governance."

If the overall ethics of investing stand at odds with those that promote SRI funds, it is no wonder that those who work in the sector-who are, generally, mostly prosocial people-would make perceivably antisocial business choices when operating under an entirely different set of ethics. The question of whether markets should infiltrate the social, then, leads to other questions: if the ethics of investment culture are allowed into the so
cial media sphere to treat social interactions on Facebook, FourSquare, et al. as a commodity to be bought and sold, should we really be surprised that unethical behaviour might ensue? Are we prepared, as consumers, for the consequences of market infiltration into our Tweets and wall posts? Perhaps most importantly, are we even aware of its potential to do so?

If not, WSJ reader Shane has an idea:

"We need an app called "Pervs Around Me," he proposed, "which would let you know about the pervy apps being used by those in the nearby vicinity."

His prosocial instincts may be onto something.


More from Mindful Money:

Facebook: Personal information has become a commodity

Is Apple the new Oxbridge?

Vampire Squids have feelings too!

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