Online Lurkers: An Endangered Species
We are a nation of lurkers, but we may have to start coming out of the shadows soon, whether we like it or not.
For every post we put up on the Web, we view dozens of others, passively consuming digital content under the pretenses that nobody knows what we're looking at.
Everyone knows that what you post on Facebook, Twitter, personal blogs or YouTube's comment section has an audience. That's the point of posting it, even if you intend to control that audience with privacy settings.
But consuming content is supposed to be anonymous, right? After all, for all Mark Zuckerberg's bluster about the end of privacy, millions of people around the world use Facebook to surreptitiously check up on old lovers, secret crushes, and the weirdos they went to high school with who now post status updates with too much information.
Yes, of course, we use it for other things, but for every comment left on someone's recent vacation pictures, there's an ex who looked at them and then ate fried chicken while crying. Beyond Facebook, people use the Internet for stuff they don't want anyone to know about every day.
Yet how many netizens would be shocked to learn their Google searches could be sold, much less made available to the public? Or what about their unedited browsing history? Even people who don't look at pornography (a dwindling group) have probably typed something into the search bar they don't want the world to see.
The vast majority of online activity is passive lurking -- a phenomenon known as the 1 percent rule, where "active" users, or people who create content, are vastly outweighed by "passive" viewers, people who consume the content without adding anything. The active users put forth words, images and videos, creating a digital footprint that employers, law enforcement officials, judges and everyday people can investigate.
But Internet lurkers also leave a digital imprint, and their behavior is moving out of the shadows, due to several tech companies' visions of online transparency and accountability in the future.
Facebook recently tested a new function that reveals which people have read a post visible on an event page, tying user identities to particular content. The limited feature demonstrates the company is testing the waters and heading in a more transparent direction.
This new feature is limited to the event pages, so information viewed via Newsfeed or on other people's Facebook walls is still not monitored in that way, but this could be the beginning of a move towards that type of system.
Facebook isn't the first company doing this kind of thing -- in mobile, Apple iMessage now offers "read receipts" to show when a recipient views a message, and online social networking sites like OKCupid and LinkedIn show users who views their profiles. Compared to those systems, it is far easier to browse through Facebook profiles without people knowing, but the social network often tests new features by starting out small and getting bigger, so it may not stop with the event pages.
Facebook already rolled out read receipts for its Messenger app, letting users know when people saw their messages, but since it is limited to e-mail style private messaging, it's not as controversial as letting the greater network in on user browsing habits.
The End of Lurking Could Improve Safety
Some critics are up in arms over the Facebook move, but the uproar is part of a larger continuum of response over issues of privacy and the Internet, especially as incidents surrounding these matters heat up. Unmasking who's looking at content and tracking rankles privacy advocates, but could help ensure the safety of others.
Otherwise intelligent people land in seriously hot water because they don't understand how easy it is to find out what someone's just been looking at, reading or browsing online. The infamous Craigslist killer was smart enough to get into med school but didn't think to cover his tracks when he sent messages to prospective victims. And while he clearly had emotional problems, there are troves of non-sociopathic Internet users who are savvy enough to illegally torrent music files but seemingly ignorant that FCC can track their behavior by looking up their ISP.
If social media sites transition into letting users see who looks at their pages, it could prevent crimes from happening, or at the very least make it extremely easy to track down criminals who use social media to plan their crimes, like burglars who monitor the activities of people on Facebook and steal things from their homes when they leave town.
If location tracking apps like FourSquare also implement read receipts showing who looked at check-ins, it could also discourage assailants who stalk their victims by monitoring their location through apps. By providing users with more information about who keeps tabs on their profiles, getting caught off-guard by someone who regularly haunts profiles will not happen as often, especially since it will discourage people who don't usually check out each other's profiles from lurking, as it would arouse suspicion. Facebook's decision to test read receipts may stem from its ambition to bring children under 13 onto the website, since ramping up safety measures could help the social network convince regulators to change the law.
Lurking's Been On Its Way Out For Awhile
Even though changes like read receipts unsettle people because they prove there's an easily sniffed-out trail of what they've been clicking on, the truth of the matter is various companies have kept a tight watch on where Internet users lurk for years, and it's only intensifying as targeted ads grow in popularity.
Even though Google doesn't publicly post the browsing history of its users, it keeps a record, and one that authorities can access if they get a subpoena. Even though lurking behavior is just slowly coming into light between users, when it comes to netizens and tech companies, the ability to see lurking behavior has existed for a long time.
If Facebook adopts read receipts and tracking on a wider scale, it could result in a loss of users, since many people will feel violated knowing their activities are broadcast to their network of friends. After all, teenagers shied away from Facebook in favor of Twitter due to increased parental monitoring, and providing read receipts would make it easy for parents, friends and acquaintances to keep track of their behavior.
At the same time, Facebook already keeps track of which pages its users visit. Advertisers use this information to target ads, and law enforcement officials can use it if they have proper authorization, so Facebook would be giving the public a closer level of access to what other parties already have.
People love to lurk, so moving towards this kind of system will engender protest and bitterness, and possibly result in an exodus from the social media juggernaut. At the same time, since other social networks like OKCupid have already implemented this sort of monitoring without hemorrhaging clients, Facebook may also get away with it. As it stands, online lurking may become a thing of the past altogether, especially as what we browse is as important to advertisers as who we are and what we do. ♦
Categories: Culture Desk