Kashmir Hill is a little disturbed by the public reaction to a controversial iPhone app called “Girls Around Me,” which mined data from the social location platform Foursquare and public profiles on sites like Facebook to create what one breathless critic dubbed “a tool for rapists and stalkers.” Writes Hill:
For one, how do we know that the women who could be found on this map did not want to be visible in this way? A recent Pew study found that women are the savvier sex when it comes to privacy settings, visiting them and ramping them up at much higher rates than men. Those Bostonians who popped up on Brownlee’s map may want to be publicly broadcasting where they are. There are, after all, dating apps, such as Blendr, that do offer exactly that to both men and women. Sometimes we can be found because we want to be found. [….]
The women “exposed” by ‘Girls Around Me’ have chosen to be on Foursquare, and the company tells me that the app was only able to pull up a woman’s Facebook profile if she chose to link it to her Foursquare account. In rejecting and banishing the app, we’re choosing to ignore the publicity choices these women have made (assuming, as Brownlee, does, that they did not intend to be that public), in the name of keeping them safe. And we make the ugly assumption that men who might want to check out women in the area have nefarious intentions. If you extend this kind of thinking ‘offline,’ we would be calling on all women to wear burkas so potential rapists and stalkers don’t spot them on the streets and follow them home.
Framed as a privacy issue, the reaction is indeed a little strange. There is no reason to join Foursquare, nor to actively link it to your public Facebook profile, unless you want to publicly share that information: That is the point of the service. Nor, frankly, is it all that much more difficult to do what the app enabled by manually examining nearby locations using Foursquare’s own official client to see where women (or men) have checked in—so it seems like a stretch to say this is one of those cases where technically-public information is being aggregated in a radically game-changing way.
What seems more likely is that the reaction to the app is substantially a result of, as Hill puts it, the “design of ‘Girls Around Me,’ consisting of Bond-style silhouettes of naked ladies dancing and posing provocatively.” Suppose Foursquare were rebranded as “Hookupsquare” (or “Stalkersquare”), or Facebook absorbed by AdultFriendFinder, but everything else about the software remained the same. One assumes they would be a good deal less popular, despite being identical in terms of the information flows they enabled. The “creepiness” would be entirely in the use they appears to endorse of that information, or the dimensions of public information they bring to the fore.
One reasons labels are important here is that often when it comes to sex, we like to maintain a deliberate measure of vagueness about exactly what we’re doing. Strangers flirting at a bar or club seldom open with “I’m hoping we might be able to sleep together a little later,” however clear it might be to all concerned that this is ultimately the point—and someone who did would probably seem pretty creepy, even if you’d been harboring the same hope. Shifting online, a big part of the appeal of Facebook is that it serves many of the functions of a dating site readily without defining the core activity as searching for a romantic partner. Keeping the romantic or sexual functions of an interaction—or a platform for interaction—in the background actually ends up serving those functions by creating a space for intimacy to develop without suggesting that all other communication is just some tedious prelude to fluid exchange.
Privacy is probably a bit of a red herring here, then, but it may seem natural to cast it in those terms because the feeling of objectification may overlap with one of the harm we identify with privacy violations. Why do we dislike the idea of being spied on in the shower—even by people who’ve seen us naked before, and so aren’t really obtaining “new information”? Presumably the same thing we find “creepy” about the guy who’s conspicuously ogling body parts in public—which may make someone feel more physically exposed even though, technically, they already were. And we react differently to the same observation depending on how overt it is. Someone who notices they’re being checked-out by a furtive glance—or, if we’re in an 80s movie, the slowly lowered sunglasses—may not mind, or even regard it as complimentary, at the same time as they’d be repulsed by open leering. Why? Because the attempt to be subtle (even if not so subtle as to escape notice) recognizes the observed both as a sexual body and as a subject with a reciprocal gaze of their own. The leer encompasses its object only as object.
If we think about problems of observation (whether the gaze is digital or physical) primarily in terms of control over information flows, the backlash against “Girls Around Me” can seem confused: It doesn’t render private information more public, and it doesn’t substantively alter the purposes for which that information can be easily used. That doesn’t mean the feeling there’s something creepy or objectionable bout the app is misguided, though: It just means not all issues in this sphere are usefully shoehorned into a privacy rubric.