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June 2005

Cybershaming and cybercompassion

Don Park reports on a woman whose dog defecated on a train in Korea and refused to clean up the mess. 

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It began in a subway train with a girl whose dog made a mess on the train floor. When nearby elders told her to clean up the mess, she basically told them to f[***] off. A nearby enraged netizen then took pictures of her and posted it, without any masking, on a popular website which started a nationwide witchhunt.

Within hours, she was labeled gae-ttong-nyue (dog-shit-girl) and her pictures and parodies were everywhere. Within days, her identity and her past were revealed. Request for information about her parents and relatives started popping up and people started to recognize her by the dog and the bag she was carrying as well as her watch, clearly visible in the original picture. All mentions of privacy invasion were shouted down with accusations of being related to the girl. The common excuse for their behavior was that the girl doesn't deserve privacy.

I remember reading something a while ago that attributed the increase in crime in the USA to a decrease in shame, arguing that laws and law enforcement alone are not enough to deter crime, and that the entire community needs to make sure that transgressors know when they are engaging in unacceptable behavior.  [I can't find that article now, but other discussions of this topic can be found here and here.]

CBS News ran a recent story about an online system for tracking sexual offenders in Bryan, Texas, which not only posts photos of transgressors, but shows their residences on a map, and a nationwide system, SCAN USA (for Safe Community Action Network), that will send registered users a notification if a released sexual offender moves into their neighborhood.  The Korean story represents a lowering of the threshold, both with respect to the seriousness of the crime and the level of institutional support required.  [Cyberbullying might represent a further lowering of thresholds, to what I consider to be socially unacceptable levels.]

On the one hand, I think it is beneficial whenever members of a community take a greater interest -- and stake -- in the people, places and events that affect their community.  On the other hand, I've been wrestling with questions regarding my own judgment and shame, toward myself and others.  I want to become less judgmental and more compassionate.

It is interesting that among the photos that were posted about the Korean incident was one of an elderly man cleaning up the mess.  I don't know whether that man had -- or expressed -- judgments about the woman, but I think that he is modeling a crucial element for stronger communities: a willingness of members to fill in the gaps for those who are unwilling or unable to take responsibility for their own actions (or, in this case, the actions of their dogs) ... practicing random or purposeful acts of kindness.

I just read a passage last night in "Field Notes on the Compassionate Life" on an experiment in which children behaved more generously after watching an adult acting generously, even when there is a "single exposure" to such an act ... and even when several months elapse.  I know that I often find kindness contagious; for example, I am more likely to allow another driver to merge onto a highway when someone else has earlier shown me kindness in allowing me to merge into a lane.  I wonder how far this kind of cumulative effect might carry our society.

And, getting back to the original topic, I wonder whether posting photos of acts of kindness and compassion might trigger an outpouring of approbation and gratitude ... and further acts of kindess and compassion, in online and/or physical communities -- a virtuous cycle of cybercompassion.

[via BoingBoing]

Wirelessness and Shamelessness

I met Rick at The Lyon's Den coffee shoppe this morning to talk more about my business plan(s).  In addition to enjoying our conversation (he offered lots of great suggestions), the cozy atmosphere of the place and my first taste of Keemun tea, I was struck by a sign I saw posted on a meeting room at this gathering place:


The sign is encouraging people who use the room to buy something while they are there.  I find it hard to imagine using such a meeting room facility without buying something ... but then, I may be rather extreme in my desire to somehow compensate propietors for their offering(s), as I recently wrote about with respect to fee vs. free wine tastings.  I will admit that, under stressful circumstances, I sometimes use a restroom in a fast-food restaurant along the highway without buying anything, but I could not sit in a coffeehouse for an hour or two without purchasing anything there.


It's interesting that The Lyon's Den also has a policy limiting the use of its wireless network, based on purchases, as shown on yet another sign posted at the coffeehouse (a topic about which I, and others, commented recently).  I guess these signs show that coffeehouse "squatting" isn't limited to WiFi laptop users.

Reciprocal Self-Disclosure

I spent a delightful hour reading "Hello, My Name is Scott: Wearing Nametags for a Friendlier Society", by Scott Ginsberg, yesterday (while waiting for a McCrea wine tasting to start).  Scott has worn a nametag every day since October 2000 because "it makes people friendlier and more sociable and also helps them remember my name."

I earlier posted a bit about Scott's front porch philosophy; today I want to elaborate on another topic Scott covers: reciprocal self-disclosure.  One of the many interesting recurring reactions Scott has encountered is that people are more likely to verbally introduce themselves to him, presumably because he has already visually introduced himself (via his nametag) to them.

This reciprocal name exchange is an example of self disclosure, which is the act of making yourself manifest.  The reason people are significantly more willing to give me their names as soon as we begin the conversation is because self disclosure is reciprocal respective to the level of intimacy that you have revealed.  In short, when you tell someone something about yourself, e.g., your name, they will be likely to tell you that same thing about themselves.

Googling "reciprocal self dislosure" reveals a number of studies that have explored this topic, including one focusing on Internet surveys and another focused on sexual satisfaction ... and I imagine it's only a matter of time before a study of reciprocal self-disclosure in sexually-oriented Internet sites is conducted.  Scott considers his entire life to be one grand experiment, and while his experiment may not have the scientific rigor of some of these other studies -- although he does report on what might be considered an ablation study wherein he goes without his nametag for a week -- he far exceeds them in longitudinality.

This morning, after reading an article in the May issue of Worthwhile Magazine about "How Full is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life", by Tom Rath and Donald Clifton, I believe another way of thinking about this reciprocity might be "reciprocal bucket-filling" -- nametag-inspired conversations allow the conversants to fill each other's buckets with positive energy.  Towards the end of his book, Scott shares a story about how he was lifted out of a bad mood through a conversation with a stranger that was triggered by Scott's nametag.  I'll wait to elaborate further on this theme until I have a chance to read the bucket book.

Meetro: Proximity-Based IM

I discovered Meetro, a proximity-based instant messaging service, while browsing around the Where 2.0 conference pages.  The system shows other users who are logged in and "near" (within a mile, 1/2 mile, 1/4 mile or "other") in addition to IM exchanges, it allows the creation of dynamic groups based on interest and location.  I don't know how the client knows where the user is, but I suspect it uses geocoded WiFi access points. 

It's an interesting idea -- I'm always interested in the use of technology to help people connect -- and reminds me of Trepia (which as far as I can tell has failed), Dodgeball (which uses mobile phones) and PlaceSite (which is focused on creating community around specific places rather than general proximity).  A Chicago Sun-Times article on Meetro this week reports that Meetro has 500 users, 200 of whom are in Chicago.  This is the kind of system that requires critical mass (a common report from Trepia users was that no one was ever "near"), and has a potentially significant privacy hurdle to overcome.  Given the reported subscription numbers, I imagine the system is being used primarily by the co-founders' friends, family and novelty seekers; perhaps the Where 2.0 appearance will help boost interest and participation.

People, Food and Other Objects of Sociality in Small Urban Spaces

In his book "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces", William Whyte presents a number of observations and insightful analyses of the factors that promote or inhibit sociality in various spaces in urban areas.  I was reminded of the concept of object-centered sociality that I recently read (and blogged) about: shared objects providing the catalyst for social awareness and interactions.  Much of the online discussion about object-centered sociality is based on shared digital objects (although Jyri recently described an example of shared digital objects leading to a shared physical connection in a cafe). Whyte focuses on objects that draw people together in physical spaces ... primarily other people and food, noting that supply creates demand.

According to Whyte, while people may talk about "getting away", their choices often reveal a desire to be among other people ... lots of other people.  In fact, choice itself is a major factor in venue selection: socializing on a crowded street corner provides an easier and more polite exit strategy (and escape route) than being structurally being hemmed in.

In the center of the crowd, you have the maximum choice -- to break off, to continue ... If you know you can move if you want to, you feel more comfortable staying put.

I suspect this is the same factor that makes elevators such unsociable places ... and contributes to the risk of strking up a conversation with the person sitting next to you on a plane (an example of which was recently described by Jane).

People attract other people, and food attracts people (who attract other people), so

If you want to seed a place with activity, put out food.

Whyte describes an outdoor cafe with ethnic food at St. Andrews Plaza in New York, where the seating was intentionally tightly packed.

[P]eople were compressed into meeting one another ... it is one of the most sociable of places ... I've never seen so many people striking up conversations, introducing people, saying hellos and goodbyes.

[Aside: way back when they served meals on airplanes, I remember the arrival of the meal as the most sociable period of a flight, when people sometimes took a break from their reading, writing or other activities to chat a bit as they eat.  And I also remember that that the snackbar car on the Metra commuter trains in Chicago I used to take was always far more sociable than any other car.  I don't think a snackbar on an elevator very practical, but perhaps some textual food, a la the Digital Elevator Poetry project demonstrated by James G. Robinson at UbiComp 2003.]

Other people and food both provide for what Whyte calls "triangulation":

[T]hat process by which some external stimulus provides a linkage between people and prompts strangers to talk to each other as though they were not [strangers].

Unusual -- one might even say, remarkable -- people (street characters, musicians and other entertainers) or objects (art, sculpture or [other] spectacular sights) provide great conversation openers, even -- perhaps especially -- if they are "bad", as bad acts (and bad works of art) may provoke more side comments than good ones ... remarkable food may fall in this category as well.

Whyte also refers to what might now be called the wisdom of crowds, with respect to people's ability -- and tendency -- to self-regulate.  In speaking of a public place's "effective capacity, that is, the number of people who by free choice will sit at a place during normal peak-use periods", he observes that

It's as if people had some instinctive sense of what is right overall for a place and were cooperating to maintain it that way, obligingly leaving, or sitting down, not sitting, to keep the density within range.

This notion of instinct and wisdom leads me to the last aspect of Whyte's book I want to mention here, which is the notion of attracting desirable vs. undesirable people in a public place, which reminded me of yet another book, "Love is Letting Go of Fear", by Gerald Jampolsky, in which he argues that every perception and action is motivated either by love or by fear, and the way to achieve greater joy and peace is to let go of fear.  Whyte expresses similar sentiments with respect to the design of public places:

Places designed with distrust get what they were looking for and it is in them, ironically, that you will most likely find a wino ...  Fear proves itself ... The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make a place attractive to everyone else.

Jampolsky, as well as Marc Ian Barasch (and others) might question whether anyone is truly undesirable ... but I'll defer delving into that topic for another blog post.