Cyber accountability, cyber tattling or cyber rage?

A host of sites has developed to try to publicize others who do bad.  For example (which reports on way below average parkers) (which squeals on derelect nannies); (which outs miserly tippers); (which affixes bad boyfriends with a scarlett ‘B’);
and (which pillories men who verbally or physically harass women in public or private).
Are these violating privacy or enforcing social norms and expectations in an era where social capital is low and thus social networks don’t fulfill this role adequately?

Some such accountability sites are more noble. Witness gives video cameras to individuals in third world countries to document and reveal human rights abuses.
But some sites seem less about ensuring cyber accountability and more about letting people vent their spleen in a semi-sanctioned way. Take for instance youparklikeanas@$%&!.com where people can download notices to put under others’ windshield wipers notifying them of their horrendous parking job. By having a website and official notices, it seems to lend an acceptable sanction to the more typical nasty note on a windshield. 

And some of the categories are a bit humorous. They even have a photo gallery documenting these atrocious drivers.

Thomas Friedman has a related column in the New York Times (“The Whole World is Watching“, 6/28/07) about how blogs hold public figures or public intellectuals accountable or make them “always on”.  Friedman recounts an experience back in 2004 at Logan Airport where a woman asserted that he was cutting in front of her to pay at a checkout counter at a newstand.  Friedman says that he didn’t believe that he was and checked out first, but now says he would have requested that she go ahead.  Friedman writes: “When everyone has a blog, a MySpace page or Facebook entry, everyone is a publisher. When everyone has a cellphone with a camera in it, everyone is a paparazzo. When everyone can upload video on YouTube, everyone is filmmaker. When everyone is a publisher, paparazzo or filmmaker, everyone else is a public figure.”  The result is that one can rarely if ever be “off camera” or private since one always risks that one’s ethical lapses or misdeeds (real or perceived) will be broadcast around the world and permanent enshrined in the ethernet. 

 This obviously interacts with our nation’s declining social capital.  

If our ethics don’t keep us responsible, and we don’t fear people telling their friends (since folks have fewer friends nowadays),  perhaps we’ll at least fear our negative reputation spreading via online tools.  Friedman quotes the book How by Dov Seidman.

”We do not live in glass houses (houses have walls); we live on glass microscope slides … visible and exposed to all,” Seidman writes. Friedman concludes: “So whether you’re selling cars or newspapers (or just buying one at the newsstand), get your hows right — how you build trust, how you collaborate, how you lead and how you say you’re sorry. More people than ever will know about it when you do — or don’t.”

The challenge is that these blogs, MySpace, YouTube may be good at holding publicly accountable public figures (from Paris Hilton to Hillary Clinton to Kenneth Lay to Lebron James).  And maybe they’ll hold nannies or restaurant patrons responsible.  But for the average Joe (unless he is harassing woman), his misdeeds might not be of interest to the general public.

Although if such approaches multiply like weeds, they might start holding us more accountable in the same as closed circuit cameras in London or cameras atop intersections have made us more accountable.

I’d certainly rather have social capital than big brother or Nosy Nora or Vindictive Victor, but with our low levels of social capital we reap what we sow.

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