A young woman activist went to a big, fancy conference where people talked about many important things. During that conference, she noticed that the young night-shift receptionist at the hotel she was staying at was very sweet, friendly and helpful. He had great recommendations for local food, bars and most important of all, he knew how to set up the Karaoke machine downstairs. She and her conference-buddies wanted to have a small party, to chill out after the hectic pace of conferencing.

I watched her first, brief interaction with The Receptionist. They were talking about the Karaoke machine. I couldn’t see her face, but I could see his. From her voice it sounded like she was flirting with him a little bit. He was smiling broadly, sweetly, his eyes searching her face. It turns out that the Karaoke system didn't work because there was some problem with the sound, but I gathered that there was back and forth with The Receptionist. (It turns out they just played the Karaoke DVD off a laptop in their room. I think it was a 'School Disco' DVD)

The next morning, The Receptionist approaches The Activist at breakfast and asks her: so, how can we keep in touch? She replies, airily,: oh, just look for me on Facebook. She wrote down her name for him so he could find her. I imagine they will stay in touch for a few weeks, but not necessarily become close friends. Maybe he will comment on something she posts. Maybe not. Who knows.

This little exchange happened over last night and this morning just as I was thinking about the sessions I attended yesterday. I stopped by at two sessions on social media and social networking, one focusing on governance and the other on privacy. At the first, someone said to me: "governance of social media is an oxymoron" ... and I couldn't have agreed more. We heard about Facebook, and Facebook-related outrage in the previous IGF. Somehow, this conversation has not seemed to move. The recent brouhaha over the giant network's privacy policy has ensured that it remains on the radar. Yet, there was no one from Facebook or any other social network at the session (they were in the session on privacy and social networking that came after this one). And in discussing the governance of social media there was a ready discussion that internet rights principles need to be applied (more like pasted, in my opinion) to governance of social media, but there was no incorporation of the realities of social networking sites primarily being for-profit corporations; nor of the legal, business, technology and other aspects of running such huge and complex technical and social systems. There was one person who raised this in the discussion as well. I found the range of responses interesting, but was tiring of the many assumptions made about what it means to be a user of social networks. There were academic researchers talking about what the young do online, that they don't care about privacy policies in the ways that policymakers do; there were many concerned voices of the morally conscious and mostly clue-less. Why was there no discussion of how users actually manage, negotiate and respond to violations of rights online? Why were discussions of policy so removed from the reality of social media and media users? And why must social networking sites constantly be made the bogey-person of what is considered to ail the internet? The connections between online and offline continue to be organic, palpable, tense and real. Sometimes it is as if they are still being treated as different, disconnected entities.

The second session on social networking and privacy was even more depressing. For one, the panel of speakers consisted of more Northern men in suits. The saving grace was a Turkish woman lawyer (who I remember meeting from the 2008 IGF) on the panel. This session seemed to have little connection to any of the actual research - legal, cultural and sociological - on privacy and social networks. There were no real users in the room or on the panel. One of the panellists, definitely over 40 years, said: I just use social networking sites for my professional connections and make sure that I don't put my personals (sic) up there. I heard this and wanted to laugh out loud. Google Brasil talked about data protection and privacy principles in what seemed like a pat, smooth corporate speech. From our work in India, users are aware that privacy, personal data and images can all be readily used, manipulated, shared and traded (and many of them know how to do this; to break into someone else's Gmail account is one of the 'easiest' things to do apparently. And we didn't hear this from hackers. We heard this from young women's rights activists in Delhi). What I did like from all that I heard was the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Bill of Privacy Rights for Social Networking sites. It sounds like a workable set of ideas to try to bring to the attention of social media companies, who, we know, can and do hear what user's say.

From today's tweets from my other Feminist Talk friends it would seem like the 'youth are addicted to Facebook' discourse is doing the rounds in various sessions. In a multi-stakeholder platform like the IGF it is not useful to have non-users making policies for users, for policy makers to not be informed by a variety of research, and for tired beliefs and assumptions to be trotted out so readily. There are a lot of people for whom the internet is Facebook, or Orkut, or Twitter. I think they need to be at the centre of discussions, as do social networking sites/corporations, around how to manage the social, personal, offline realities of online networks. I think we need to stop vilifying things like Facebook and get on with doing more research and questioning of the role and place of social networking phenomena.

*** people mentioned in this piece: you know who you are and take this with a bag of salt !!!

Responses to this post

i agree that in fora like IGF it is really pointless "to have non-users making policies for users", adult for youth, etc it is output of relatively narrow understanding of multi-stakeholder principle in the igf which hasn't got over business-government-civil society definition

Hmm, think you may have just saved me a couple of hours of remote watching of videos. Was really excited to check out the privacy discussions but it sounds like they were disappointing. Perhaps we should be pursuing this question of yours with feminist talk writers and readers: Why was there no discussion of how users actually manage, negotiate and respond to violations of rights online?

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