I’m thinking about my reaction to this opinion piece in today’s SCMP by Peter Kammerer. My ego (and a friend) tells me he is probably writing about me, though a couple of supposed “details” are wrong. I am actually more aware than most of how public this information really is and how, once posted, the information remains available online even if I subsequently delete it. I know about caches and internet archive sites, I know that Facebook is searchable from Google and other search engines and I know that a cyber-stalker recently went through my Twitter history trying to find some evidence that did not exist to use against me.
I don’t post every detail of my life, even if it sometimes can seem that way. (Of course, anyone who has been reading me pre-2006 knows that I used to post far more intimate details of my life, much more than I do today.) I believe that the writer has taken a few bits of info and puffed them up to make them seem more important than they actually are. He knows I drive a BMW? Lots of people in Hong Kong drive one. He knows what movies or music I like – and so? I enjoy communicating about my passions in life and since those passions don’t include abusing animals or 80s hair metal music, I’m not embarrassed to share them. (Although naturally there are those who do not share my values and who find some aspects of my life or some of my opinions distasteful, but that’s life.)
As I’ve commented before, both here and elsewhere, the fact that I’ve indicated on foursquare that I’m in some specific bar or restaurant does not mean that my house is vacant or unattended – far from it. Yes, I’m easy to identify when I’m out and about. Yes, in many cases, you (the person reading this right now) know more about me than I know about you. But I don’t see that as a bad thing. On the other hand, I think that there definitely are many people who post way too much personal information about themselves online, much more than I ever have or ever will about myself. There are quite a few blogs dedicated to things people have posted on Facebook that should never have been so public; as far as I know nothing I have ever posted has been worthy of a mention in these blogs. I agree with Mr. Kammerer that children in particular need to be educated as to the potential dangers and that their internet usage should be monitored to a certain extent by their parents.
I have gone through these periods of thinking that I post too much personal information about myself, that I should strive to make the blog less personal and then something happens that I just can’t stop myself from writing about. I have learned that a little bit of offhand phrasing here or there has a way of being misinterpreted and backfiring, though generally in ways that are more amusing than harmful. I know that just because I write about something and think that everyone will see it as “X,” some will see it as “Y.” And I suppose that some will say that it’s an expression of ludicrous egotism that I think this piece is about me or that I am revealing too much by writing about it here and drawing further attention to it and to myself.
There is an upside to the very minimal amount of fame that I may have which does not get mentioned in the article – and that’s assuming that having a few hundred people per day read my blog makes me “famous.” In Hong Kong, far more people know about Bus Uncle than know about me. But in the balance, I believe I’ve received far more positive things than negative as a result of people knowing who I am in the real world – from the occasional free drink in a bar to job offers.
At any rate, take a look and let me know what you think about all this.
Too much information
Mar 02, 2010
I have never met Mark, but I feel I know him well. From following his blog over the past four years, receiving his Tweets and occasionally checking his Facebook page, I have learned what I presume to be virtually everything there is to know about him. From his postings, I have a sound sense of his likes, dislikes, hates and fears. With a fair degree of accuracy, I can second-guess his music and movie choices, which restaurant he will go to for dinner and his next holiday destination.
At any given time of day or night, I have a good idea where Mark – not his real name – is. I know that he is moderately wealthy, has a Filipino girlfriend whom he met in a Wan Chai bar and has a taste for Shenzhen massages. Without difficulty, I can show you where he lives, reveal the type, model and colour of his car and, if needs be, find out his mother’s address. I even know how many tattoos he has and where they are on his body.
My interest in Mark would seem to be more than casual. There may appear to be a measure of voyeuristic intent in the way I follow his activities. Even as I write this, I have to agree that this all sounds creepy. If you’re reading this, Mark, please understand that I have no ill will towards you or your property; that I read you because I like your style of writing and find your life interesting.
Of course, I could well be the exception. I know from the page views and comments posted to the various internet sites that I am just one of a number of Mark’s followers. Some of the remarks point towards people who are not so enamoured with him. Anyone jealous of his circumstances would, I believe, have little difficulty breaking into his home when he is out of town – a quick look at photographs posted to his blog can easily confirm this – and make off with some of his rare music memorabilia, his wall-sized plasma television or expensive camera equipment.
To prove that I am not devious of mind, this did not occur to me until I encountered the website pleaserobme.com at the weekend. Using information from the social networking site foursquare.com, which lets people share information about their whereabouts, it produces a list of people who are not at home. Whether they are in Tokyo, Seoul or New York, it takes just a little internet research to get an address. With a smattering of knowledge of burglary techniques, I imagine all manner
of ill-gotten gains are up for grabs.
Mark is, after all, not a rarity – a quick scan of social networking sites and blogs reveals an alarming number of similarly minded people with lax regard for safeguarding personal information. Whether because of a love of writing, a need to share information with friends and relatives or merely a planet-sized ego, they seem to think that they can let slip all manner of details along with their opinions and images. They clearly do not realise that the world is watching them. Along with those who have been “friended”, and casual readers, may be lurking teachers, employers and thieves.
I am sure this did not occur to a former colleague. A Tweet he sent out a few weeks before he left his job referred to the meal he was having at a time he should have been at his desk: a steak sandwich and a vodka. Nor, probably, did a friend think twice about the photos of a rather risque party in Manila posted on his page. As a teacher, he should have known better – and was fortunate Facebook censors stepped in before his school noticed.
My teenage sons have been lectured mercilessly about their Facebook pages. They have been told to be careful about who they “friend”, to think before putting location-specific information on posts or photos, to be hazy about addresses and to be wary about cross-posting to Twitter. In their haste to tell all and sundry about an interesting happening, they sometimes forget. They are lucky that I am lurking nearby to remind them.
The internet has revolutionised the way we work and communicate. Through it we have found new ways to express talents. But it is a tool that has to be used with care and thought. With the world as a potential audience, you can never be sure who is watching.