Transparent information and shared happiness

Jeremy Phillips

In today’s post entitled “Please [don’t] rob me”, Olswang LLP’s +Technology blog discusses the startlingly original and somewhat shocking Pleaserobme.com website. This site, subtitled “Listing all those empty homes out there” and also accessible via Twitter search, has attracted a lot of attention, both hostile and laudatory. Writes +Technology:

“J. K. Rowling’s Marauder’s Map allowed its owner to track the movements of anyone within Hogwarts’ grounds. In a more subtle way, social networking sites like Twitter make it possible to tell where someone (even a complete stranger) is at a given moment and often for how long they will be there. Whilst we could trust Harry to put this power to good use in defeating the Dark Lord, there is clear opportunity for abuse of location-based data at the hands of less scrupulous individuals.

It is this danger that Dutch developer Boy Van Amstel and friends wished to highlight when they launched pleaserobme.com. The site … purports to list “new opportunities” for burglary and “recent empty homes” by aggregating publicly shared Twitter check-ins via which users publish their location. Most of these come from cross-posts of location data from the game Foursquare, which encourages people to “colonise” their local area by regularly stating their current location, in return for advancement in the game and even real-life freebies.

The greatest danger comes because many Twitter users are unaware that, unlike with Facebook, Twitter’s default setting is that a person’s tweets can be viewed by anyone, not just those who “follow” them. Van Amstel told the BBC that the website took just four hours to create. “Anyone who can do HTML and javascript can do this”, he said. “You could almost laugh at how easy it is”.

The developers hope that the website will stimulate people to reconsider the information that they share about their current location and the way in which they do it. And it seems to me that Twitter itself has a part to play in more visibly highlighting the accessibility of tweets, perhaps by finding a creative and intuitive way to let people know that their tweets can be viewed publicly.

All of this leaves me to ponder – aside from in-game advantages in the Foursquare context, why do we feel the need to share our location so publicly? Legal & General research in 2009 found that 38% of social networking users share holiday plans on sites like Facebook and Twitter. What’s the attraction?

There is no shortage of thought in this area, and it would be foolish of me to attempt a definitive answer here. So instead, I’ll muse. Alan Moore, in his upcoming book No Straight Lines says, “Human beings are simply far more intertwined and interdependent physiologically as well as psychologically than our cultural preconceptions have allowed us to acknowledge”. This desire to connect, previously satisfied solely in the context of tight-knit social communities, can now be practised on a global scale.

Whatever the reason, there is often a sketchy sort of perceived fulfilment in knowing that others are aware of and maybe even care about our activities and movements. Or, in the words of Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild (as referenced by Moore), “happiness is only real when it is shared”.

That is, until we return home to find our valuables gone”.

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