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People who live in glass houses are us.

There is a tendency for participants in online forums, particularly smaller groups in which a sense of identity and relationship among participants becomes established, to form a sense of community. In many cases an easy familiarity is born in which members share experiences from professional and personal life, including discussions of collegues, bosses or reports, clients, tasks, personal activities, relationships, hobbies, health issues. The things friends discuss amongst themselves in comfortable, intimate, surroundings, despite the fact that many participants may never have met face to face, or only a few amongst them, or rarely.

The problem, of course, is that this intimacy is an illusion in virtually all electronic embodiments. Usenet groups are distributed worldwide. Web chats are not only globally accessible, but are indexed through services such as Google [1]. Email lists are frequently archived, with these archives often available through web or other interfaces. Even personal or private emails can be forwarded from one person to another, witness ClaireSwire.

Worse, acts of outrage, however understandable, can have serious, widespread, and long-lasting implications. One example was a research academic at a well-known US university who had become frustrated at an inability to unsubscribe from a Linux mailing list, and unleashed a barrage of abusive and insulting emails -- with personal contact information identifying an office, a research center, and the parent institution. Within several hours, responses from multiple members of the mailing list were sent to the person's direct supervisor, the campus system administrators, the university president, and former co-workers identified through web searches on the individual in question.

It's not uncommon for a person's electronic reputation to precede them in job interviews or applications. One of the authors of this node first experienced this in the mid 1990s, and found that a background check for a more recent position turned up over 50,000 distinct web hits (some accounted for by software glitches duplicating data).

The point: though this is a community, it is one of glass houses. The activities of members are highly visible, with long residence periods. The information generated can be used positively or negatively. In some cases, job offers, professional opportunities, or personal relationships, may result directly from online activities. In others, however, information may be used against the person -- work habits scrutinized, relationships used to draw conclusions, discussions of health issues used to determine whether or not associated risks need be accepted. Future legal battles might hinge on a few sentences lifted from context written years before.

The assumption that a community can only be a nurturing place, doesn't harbor aggressive individuals, or doesn't attract the interest of attackers from outside, is naive in the extreme. So long as there are no effective walls preventing others from viewing the activities inside, a forum must be considered a public stage with global reach.

This doesn't mean that participation must be withheld or that all outcomes are bad. It does, hoever, argue strongly for caution on the part of the participants in what parts of themselves they wish to reveal, and what risks there might be in doing so.

This refers to two different ideas here.

The first idea is mentioned in the TransparentSociety. If everybody is surveilling everybody using tiny cameras, then we are all living in glass houses. This will make us more polite and more forgiving, because even though we might not agree with everything we see, we won't start making a fuss out of it, lest other people start examining the last corners of our own lives. While people can and should ForgiveAndForget, in a glass house they have the ability to remember what they had previously forgotten. This relates very much to "He who is innocent shall throw the first stone!" As nobody is truly innocent, it will be not be easy to exploit knowledge gained without making yourself an easy target. Therefore, another saying is also true, "People in glass houses don't throw stones."

The second idea, however, is very different. It is important for people having an OnlineDiary or a WebLog. They share information in order to build trust, to attract a community. And the community will not abuse the trust because of idea number one mentioned above: "don't throw stones..." For outsiders, however, things are different. They are not living in a glass house, therefore they might actually start throwing stones.

Whether that means nobody will ever be living safely in a glass house (because there will allways be outsiders), is unclear.

If enough people live in glass houses, perhaps there will be enough distrust vs. outsiders so that stones thrown from the outside have no effect. In other words, if somebody cites some ol' USENET posting of yours on alt.sex.stories, you may turn the questions around and ask, "Well, who are you to talk -- all you ever did was post lame questions on comp.databases.oracle, what kind of social skill have you ever aquired on the 'Net?"

Contributors: KarstenSelf, SunirShah, EricScheid, AlexSchroeder.

The above refactoring rather cleverly manages to evade the point rather exactly, despite dancing around it at some length. I'm leaving it intact for the moment, though I've written an updated version that is far closer to what I'd had in mind when I started this node. I'm not finished with this by any means, and I don't mind others' additions, but I'd prefer they share some semblance to the spirit in which this node was intended. -- KarstenSelf 29 Apr 2001


Let's just call this the start of an idea ginned from BasisForPseudonymity. Rumors that MeatballWiki is a closed, safe, caring, nurturing community are grossly mislaid. Yes, we might all be nice people (but that's an assumption in itself), but there's nothing preventing the outside world from looking in. This is a GlassHouse?. -- KarstenSelf 24 Apr 2001

This doesn't make much sense. Please clarify. -- SunirShah

Inside / outside is a false dichotomy in general access online communities. -- KarstenSelf

is the concept of CommunityOfGlassHouses in any way related to the "don't throw stones if you live in glass houses" concept? --EricScheid

That's part of it. There are all sorts of interesting possible implications, including the issue of self-censoring on account that you're aware something is a public action. The first line is a play on the aphorisms "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones" and "We have met the enemy and he is us" (from WaltKelley?'s Pogo), which is itself a play on "We have met the enemy and he is ours", from, IIRC, a Great Lakes navel battle during the War of 1812. -- KarstenSelf 25 Apr 2001

People were very angry at me when I was taking photos of them at QuebecCity. My opinion: it's a public protest; you chose to be there. I did have issues taking photos of injured people. They didn't choose to be lying vulnerable. The empirical lesson is that people will be annoyed at any invasion of privacy, whether they have the right to that privacy, or the expectation and desire to have no privacy. -- SunirShah

Yet another meme: DatabaseNation?, SimpsonGarfinkel?. Add it to your reading list, Sunir. There's a parable of two cities, both of which have survelliance cameras -- but in one they're controlled by the public, in the other by the police. See also pace 84, "The Biggest Database in the World" -- the WWW. P 87 pertains directly to what I'm getting at here:

Posts to email forums, Usenet groups, and online chat services are all different kinds of public statements. Most people who decide to take their place in cyberspace eventually start making these statements. And these statements are not like any others ever uttered in the course of human history. In the past, statements made in public were frequently lost. Yes, they could be recorded, but those records were almost always hard to retrieve, or even inaccessible. An angry farmer might speak up at a town meeting and have his name recorded in the minutes, but ten years later, somebody trying to do a background investigation on that farmer would be unlikely to find his remarks--especially if the farmer had moved to Seattle and started a new life as a programmer at Microsoft. Letters written to newspapers in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s were certainly published for everybody to see, but they were rarely indexed in computerized databanks and make instantly available anywhere in the world.

SimpsonGarfinkel?, <cite>Database Nation</cite>, O'Reilly & Associates, © 2000, p 87, ISBN 1-56592-653-6 (alternate, search)

It's a glass house. We're building it and moving into it voluntarily.

There's also a concept called the UnwantedGaze?, subject of a book I've heard reviewed but not read.

There's a flipside to all of this though. The publicly accessible databases are of a quality that only private investigative firms, or government security apparatus, had available before. There's a transparancy to the data -- you can turn up something on me, but you can't hold your sources from me, because I have access to the same data. This is an empowering side to the story.

Are we becoming, not a global village, but a GlobalSmallTown? -- where everybody knows everybody's business?

-- KarstenSelf 25 Apr 2001

It is an interesting glass house: Technology is making the walls more transparent, at least one-way. Think of the wireless cameras advertised in the X-10 popups. We don't have to move to be seen. -- DavidForrest

See PracticalObscurity.

More random stuff, meme dump:

-- KarstenSelf 24 Apr 2001


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