Public / Private

I have been watching with interest the debate sparked a few days ago by the Samaritans’ “Radar” Twitter app.

In case you’ve been marooned without your mobile and haven’t seen what’s been discussed, it boils down to this:

  1. The Samaritans, a UK based charity dedicated to helping those suffering with depression, launched an app allowing friends to keep an eye on their friends’ Twitter postings, and have the Samaritans app notify them if it picked up a pattern which corresponded with symptoms of depression.
  2. Others, however, object to the Samaritans app “listening in” on their tweets without their knowledge, and want the app to be blocked.

This is a really good illustration of the way in which our society hasn’t yet caught up in social terms with the technology that is widely available to all – and also highlights the difference in the approach to social media taken by the different generations.

First let’s remind ourselves that anything that we post on Twitter is publicly visible.  We can take steps to restrict access to only “approved” people, but can’t then stop these people repeating our tweets to their public following.  Even with Facebook, which claims to limit the sharing of information to friends only, many have come to share my personal approach which is to assume that come

The problem comes because even if we accept at a certain point that we’re posting in a public forum and that our comments (and spelling mistakes) are visible to all, we are not yet well equipped to understand the consequences of three key facets of social media:

  1. Our posts are permanent, they stay visible and searchable for years.
  2. Our posts are not held in isolation, but can be cross-referenced so that Twitter and Linkedin profile information can be combined.
  3. Our posts are readily accessible and readable by machines.

Ironically, whilst the more white-haired amongst us are used to a deep suspicion of technology, and the assumption that sooner or later someone will accidentally manage to create the matrix, skynet or some other movie-themed-evil, it’s the young who seem to be more readily caught out.

As our digital reliance increases, we’re being presented with simple transactions: “share this information and I’ll give you that piece of value”.  What we need to be aware of, though, is that once shared, new uses can be found for our information which we hadn’t thought of.

One way to approach this is with a sense of rising alarm, asking for things that we’ve shared publicly to be hidden again after the event.

Another approach however, might stand the test of time better, and that’s to maintain a line between the public and the private and ensure that the public side of that line is always addressed with propriety.

I’m reading Dickens at the moment, and spending some time in an era when one’s letters, once out of one’s possession, become a risk to one’s reputation which might lead to disgrace and ruin; makes me realise that we used to know that once shared – we have no control over what we have said or meant – maybe it’s time to remember that.

Author: Martin Francis Campbell

Tech Entrepreneur turned Charity CIO. Can the charity sector use digital technology to reinvent itself? I'm finding out...

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