When changes happen in society leading to unexpected results, culture fires up an immune system in the form of urban legends and cautionary tales. I’m sitting on my hands waiting for the first real “MySpace murder” urban legend to spread like wildfire as a way of teaching the dangers of public social networks.
In the 1950’s America was experiencing an era of unprecedented growth, stability and prosperity. Our war-honed military-industrial complex was able to mass produce vehicles and for the first time ever teenagers had access to these cars and ultimately indulged in “necking” and “parking” farther from home than they could have before.
Teenagers have always been teenagers, but these cars allowed them to go quickly, away into unknown environs. This new “danger” was coupled with an older cautionary morality tale, mixed with a few actual events for realism, and eventually spread through society as the scary story of “The Hook“. Snopes.com has a good write up of this urban legend, but the summary is that a young couple were parked on a secluded lane exploring their sexuality when a scraping is heard on the car roof. The young man wants to continue but the girl insists they must leave. Ultimately, her refusal to continue maintains both her chastity and their lives as the “hook” of an escaped murder’s hand is found ripped from his arm and attached to their door handle when they return home.
This story is a one small bit of our cultural immune system kept churning to protect our members from danger, real or imagined. Ultimately the story of The Hook was meant to keep us safe by instilling a little realistic fear and thereby protecting us from something which may do us harm.
Over the past few days, Robert Scoble and Danah Boyd have been sparring about how Facebook isn’t nearly so private as one might expect and how that could be dangerous. Embedded in their entries are references warning how joining a “city” network opens you up far more than you might imagine.
Their writings are the first signs of a stirring societal response. Somewhere out there an urban legend is slowly swirling and gaining momentum about the unexpected dangers around sharing yourself on MySpace or Facebook. My guess is that the story will be inspired by some real life “psychotic” individual or rebuffed lover who will use publicly-available information to track, stalk and ultimately kill an innocent young woman. This will mutate and be retold by email forwards until it is a well known story to every internet user and is told at slumber parties, around campfires, and over games on Xbox Live. Whether the recipients believe it or take it to be true, they will slightly alter the way they think about the world and begin exploring their privacy settings de rigueur.
The main point here is that society is self-regulating and has means to deal with new threats. Initially, many chicken-littles will cry the sky is falling and demonize each change in our world but eventually the public will normalize around a “best set” of privacy options and those will become the default. Each generation will internalize the story of the poor stalked girl and users will come to expect that any network they join will be built by those who also know the story and fear the same things. As the “default” becomes assumed, the story will fade from relevance and eventually be forgotten as what it is transmitting is no longer useful. Also, companies which violate the default will now be demonized themselves as it will be “well known” about what happens when you deviate from what people expect.
It is this self-correcting nature of how humans work, passing on information to assimilate change and embedding it culturally. Ultimately these stories and conversations will connect and begin forming an “immunity” fed to our children at birth, protecting us from one danger until a new threat arises. So investigate those privacy options, and start scanning the headlines for something that makes you think twice before sending someone a “thanks for the add” post. Change will come right at the time it needs to.