A couple of years ago, when I started working at Channel 4, I came up with a model for thinking about social spaces online that focused on how users felt about being online, rather than the technical capacities of the platforms themselves. I did it so that people pitching to us would think about users rather than tech, but the model has stuck in my thinking, and seems more and more relevant today.
This is partly down to something that I thought about at the time, but didn’t write about. In the original post, I tried to describe a crude taxonomy of spaces in which users have relatively consistent expectations about what happened to the information they share, and relatively consistent behaviours that they expected from other actors (both real and technological) when they occupied that space. For example, if a space feels like its shared only by a group, users will share their information accordingly, and expect others to share their assumptions.
Likewise, user transgression is when someone shifts someone elses information from one register to in a way that wasn’t expected. A common illustration of this is newspapers taking photographs from Flickr without respecting the copyright limitations that users had put in place when uploading the photo. Loaded magazine was recently cleared of breach of privacy by the PCC following a complaint from a woman who uploaded a picture of herself to Bebo in 2006. Over the next few years her picture was circulated widely on forums, and she became an internet meme as the ‘Epic Boobs’ girl. When Loaded magazine called for their readers to help track her down, she claimed the article had caused her considerable upset. But the PCC claimed that as the picture was so widely distributed online already (appearing in the top 3 Google searches for ‘boobs’) the Loaded article could not be considered to infringe her privacy, although it would have been a different case if they had taken it directly from her Bebo profile in 2006. It was the gradual disemmination of her image between groups of users online that made it ‘public’ – not her original act, which she probably imagined to be for a group that she controlled, but groups who could access and share her image without her knowledge or control.
What is remarkable about the Epic Boobs and Facebook transgressions is that they are gradual and hard for the person involved to track. In an analogue media world, the transgression between registers is sharp and obvious – a newspaper would have had to contact you to get a copy of a photo for them to use, and your personal photographs couldn’t become a global property without you knowing about it. We now live in an age where transgression is insidious and invisible, where users can’t understand the potential risks of sharing until it’s caused them significant pain.
Understanding trangression is going to be *the* most important thing for business and users working online in the next few years. Users will need to interrogate the services they use for potential transgressions of their information across contexts (as with Facebook’s gradual publicising of user data); platform creators will have to be more explicit to users about how information transgresses different contexts, and make these transgreses more tangible to the user (simply ticking check boxes is not enough – these transgressions need to have grain and weight built into the interaction); and large organisations will need to understand the implicit and assumed contexts of the spaces they are using to connect to their users, and how to ask permission when they take contributions or data from one context to another.
We’ve been through nearly a decade of excitement about creating and scaling these new social spaces online. We now need to focus very clearly on how information moves between them, as these transgressions are not simply about data and networks. The boundaries that users understand implicitly are defined by emotions, not software, and we need to bear this in mind when we cross them.