The Foursquare Conundrum

So here’s the thing about the internet–it’s not a particularly private place. Everyone knows better than to put lots of personal information out and readily accessible, and websites using particularly sensitive information are heavily encrypted and put us to very rigorous password standards. This is basic security precautions, just as we lock our houses or cars when we leave them. There are assholes out there in the world who have no regard for decency. We take it as our responsibility to protect ourselves, insomuch as we are capable, from the malicious vagaries of modern life.

When do we move from wanting people to be responsible to crossing the line into victim blaming, though?

A recent post on Jezebel talks about the dangers of cyberstalking becoming real life stalking courtesy of Foursquare. The article mentions examples of real women being approached by people that they did not know because those people had figured out where they were via the internet.

So, first off, I dislike the Foursquare concept, so I’m biased here. My privacy is very important to me–I don’t even like informing close friends, family, or significant others what I’m up to all the time, no matter how innocent it is, because that’s just how I am. My Facebook and Twitter accounts are both locked to the fullest extent possible, and even then, I hesitate to share details. Unless you recognize me from my photo and are in Boston, there’s (I hope) no way to get much information about me off this blog. My obsession with maintaining my privacy and anonymity means that I find Foursquare to be several levels of repulsive. So, I’m biased.

A while back, there was a website called Please Rob Me, that did a real-time stream of updates of people who aren’t in their homes because they have checked in elsewhere on Foursquare. Of course, part of Foursquare is checking into your home, thus putting your address out there (I’m glad none of my friends use Foursquare, as I have heard of people “checking in” to friend’s houses, and thus throwing that address onto the web without the friend having a say in the matter). The website was intended to be tongue in cheek, while pointing out the danger inherent in broadcasting where your location is. However, even in this instance, the context was the danger of belongings, the potential for being robbed. I don’t think that “well, he/she put on Foursquare that the house was empty!” is a valid excuse in court for robbing a house.

And that’s the thing. Just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Just because you know that a house is empty and therefore ripe for the robbin’ doesn’t mean that you SHOULD rob it. It is not the victim’s fault that they occasionally leave their house. No one would suggest that someone whose house has been robbed should never leave the house because then it is their own fault if they are robbed.

However, when it comes to female bodily integrity, we always sing a different tune. What a woman wears means she’s “asking for it” (check out this great Scottish PSA on how skirts are not ever a request to be raped), if she’s walking alone at night it’s her own fault, if she accidentally drinks too much then she brought it on herself.

And now if her cyberstalker can find out where she is in the real world, it is her own fault if he shows up and starts harassing her (after all, that nice man was just being so good about taking care of the silly little girl and keeping her safe from her own childish stupidity!).

I am so violently against victim blaming. It’s one of the few things that can push me to seeing red and wanting to become literally violent. Do. Not. Blame. The. Victim.

But this Foursquare thing makes me uncomfortable. At what point is it common sense to cover your tracks, and at what point is it patronizing scare tactics? I don’t know. I really don’t know. But this is an instance where I lean toward erring on the side of caution. Women should not stop doing things in order to avoid assault, and they should not change how they dress or act or speak or anything. The responsibility is not on women to not be assaulted. The responsibility is on the would-be assaulter to not assault.

However, I fear the way Foursquare would be treated in court. I fear that it would be held up by a jury as a woman contributing to her own victimizing, even though in a sane world that shouldn’t be something someone would say. But the thing is, we don’t live in a sane world, and a lot of people really underestimate how easy it is to get information about them from the internet. When Blizzard’s RealID proposal was first making waves, it was over and over pointed out how dangerous putting people’s real information on the web could be. Blizzard had the best of intentions–make the game environment safer and with lower instances of harassment–but the reality is that the more people know about you, the more they can put together online. Check out this post about how one Blizzard user was able to demonstrate this in a very real and frightening way; lucky for the person he demonstrated on, he was benevolent.

A lot of people aren’t benevolent. A lot of people are malicious.

We are not responsible for the actions of others.

However, the world is full of fuckwads and we all know that. We know that they’re out there and on the internet and victimizing people–it happens often. There is a constant dialogue going on about how to protect your identity, your privacy, your reputation, etc. I don’t think that employers should look up the Facebook accounts of potential employees and judge them based on that, but they do. So we all do our best to keep our Facebook accounts work-safe, at least to the public eye. I don’t think that women should have to worry about men showing up at places that they’ve check into on Foursquare and demanding their attention, but they do. To what extent is this different?

I don’t know. I am so deeply against victim blaming, so the idea of saying that using Foursquare is bad and opens women up to all kinds of potential violence makes me uncomfortable, because it smacks of saying that if a woman is harassed or assaulted because of Foursquare that she is in some way responsible for that. I don’t stand by that at all. But I do stand by the fact that I think women–and, hell, everyone–should be wary of the danger of any kind of internet presence linked to your real self, but particularly one as direct as Foursquare.

Am I losing feminist cred for this? Please share your thoughts. I’m pretty divided about this whole fracas.

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07/29/2010. Tags: , , , , . Uncategorized.

One Comment

  1. Orphan replied:

    “Just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Just because you know that a house is empty and therefore ripe for the robbin’ doesn’t mean that you SHOULD rob it. It is not the victim’s fault that they occasionally leave their house. No one would suggest that someone whose house has been robbed should never leave the house because then it is their own fault if they are robbed.”

    – If you, say, leave your door unlocked, yes, not only do people suggest it, the law reflects it; it’s a lesser crime to rob a house which was left unlocked than to rob one which was secured.

    Corporate secrecy laws are designed the same way; trade secrets are only valid if some measure to protect them is taken.

    Indeed, you’ll find almost no aspect of our society in which a victim cannot find him or herself blamed for creating the conditions which turned him or her into a victim. I have less legal protection from a thug I’ve just insulted; that thug is now subject to a lesser crime if he breaks my nose. NEVERMIND that I have a legal right to speak my mind.

    If I plant a watermelon seed, fertilize it, and water it daily, I am responsible for – I get the benefits of – the watermelon, even though I personally didn’t create it – I just created the circumstances which allowed the watermelon to grow.

    You open your house up to the internet, you let anybody know who you are and where you live, you give away your privacy to any voyeur who would care to look into your life – you’re creating the circumstances which allow you to become a victim.

    Anybody who then insists people aren’t a force of nature to be planned for – does this only apply when they’re doing something you disapprove of? Is it morally wrong for a market to stock food on the assumption that people will want to eat it?

    But people shouldn’t do bad things? Well, fantastic. If only we had a way of implementing this idea, the world would be perfect. Until such time, we have to deal with reality as reality is – and that is one in which certain behaviors are inherently unsafe, and that anybody who engages in them is putting themselves at risk – and are responsible for doing so.

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