Girls Around Me is a perfect storm of everything too many people find creepy about the new mobile age. Download an app to your iPhone, link up your Facebook account and Girls Around Me will find girls around you who’ve recently checked into Foursquare near your location and return their Facebook profiles. Before Foursquare shut off access to their API and they were pulled from the App Store, Girls Around Me met your 21st century stalking needs, complete with in-app purchases.
It is an undoubtedly fascinating story, raising too many issues to discuss in one article. But I found myself with a growing sense of discomfort after reading much of the coverage and discussion surrounding the app. This stemmed from two points that were raised again and again:
- Our dismay at how publicly exposed these women are and how they need to be educated on the dangers of online privacy.
- What, exactly, Girls Around Me did wrong. All they did, after all, was hook into various services.
It was the first point that initially raised my hackles, because the tone was too similar to statements I had heard before. Not from those writing about this, but from those who believe that young black men shouldn’t be wearing hoodies, or that single women with two children shouldn’t be out at nightclubs. Those who believe in acceptable standards of behavior for groups of people, and that victims of crimes who deviated from these modes of behavior brought these crimes on.
Victim shaming simmers throughout the coverage, unsaid and unintentional, but so does the worst-case scenarios of sexual assault that remain largely unspoken but very clearly imagined. Unsurprisingly, as this a deeply uncomfortable and controversial subject.
Perhaps my ears were too finely-tuned by years of education at a liberal college campus. I may be alone; the majority of opinions formed in the last two days seem to agree that people, especially women, must be educated about the privacy implications of Facebook.
There is a discussion to be had about the default privacy settings of Facebook. But when I hear people proclaim the importance of educating these presumably ignorant young women about the dangers of Facebook, it is just a little too close to comfort to those seeking to educate women about the dangers of hemlines that end above the knee.
I do not mean to paint these people as villains. My purpose in writing this is not to call out anyone, but to think of how we are perhaps perpetuating a dangerous way of thinking about these situations.
Consider what these statements about education imply. What is the result the educators want after these people have been educated? And what if those educated choose to continue their behavior? What of those who decide to live in public? The camgirls we have met? The ones that share their lives with abandon? What is the lesson being imparted? What is the grade women get if they are victims of a crime after choosing to ignore the clicked tongue, the waggled finger, the raised eyebrow?
We are focusing our education on the wrong people. We do not blame the victims. It is not their fault.
The fault is with the perpetrator. That is where educational efforts should be directed. But here’s where it gets tricky. Because to me there are two perpetrators in situations like these. Those who committed the crime, obviously, but also those who make apps like Girls Around Me. In this situation there is no first perpetrator. The horrific tableau is entirely imagined. That does not absolve the second.
How much blame do the developers of Girls Around Me deserve? Some give them a pass. They have been described as nice. To which my only response is, really? I submit to evidence that these nice guys present women as shiny metallic objects, targets to be taken down, complete with radar imagery. These nice guys developed an app that made some who first saw it think the women within were prostitutes. I argue that these nice guys couldn’t have been ignorant that many of the Girls Around would have been horrified to know they were on it.
Why is it reasonable to not blame gun manufacturers, or cigarette companies, or McDonald’s, but Girls Around Me? Because these developers are treating others as objects they have the right to use and manipulate without their permission or their knowledge. I’m sure it’s all very legal according to the terms of service we accepted when we created accounts on Facebook or Twitter or Foursquare. That does not excuse the clear moral failing that the makers of Girls Around Me demonstrated.
But, you may argue, the women signed up to be a part of this when they signed up to be on Facebook. No. What they signed up for was to be on Facebook. Our identities change depending on our context, no matter what permissions we have given to the Big Blue Eye. Denying us the right to this creates victims who then get blamed for it. “Well,” they say, “you shouldn’t have been on Facebook if you didn’t want to…” No. Please recognize them as a person. Please recognize what that means.
This is all part of a larger problem right now, not just limited to shady apps like Girls Like Me but exhibited frequently by the supposedly-reputable companies springing up that seek to tap into the vast troves of personal data we have given to the Facebooks of the world, hoping to strike it rich mining this data from servers around the world. These companies make assumptions about the permissions we have supposedly granted them because of permissions we have granted another.
No. Stop it. Stop collecting money on other’s behalf. Stop promising the time of people who had never agreed to give it. Stop creating profiles of people and assigning them a score they never asked for. Stop speaking for us. Stop denying us agency.
“Others find value in our service…” No. People have different motivations.
“We’re trying to make you money…” No. You are trying to make money and assume people will be fine with your methods as long as you share some of that money with them.
“You can always opt-out…” No. Please. No. Wait — I’ve reconsidered. That’s fine. Just tell me when you want me to stop hitting you.
Stop speaking for me.
There is an extremely fine line to be walked in these situations involving identity and too many companies are on the wrong side of it, which makes me think that it must be very fine indeed if very smart people can’t see it. They can’t see the difference between a person finding a site that collects their most favorited tweets harmless and that same person being irritated that a profile was created for them on a site that seems to do something very similar.
The line is this: when you begin speaking for another person without their permission you are doing something wrong. When you create another identity for them without their permission you are doing something wrong. When you make people feel victimized who previously did not feel that way you are doing something wrong.
Amit Runchal blogs at Interactioned.