The 'Kiss and tell' syndrome can make online content go out of line

When medical services were brought under the ambit of the Consumer Protection Act, some government hospitals tried to wriggle out. The pretext was that they were offering free service to some patients, and ‘consumers’ are only those who ‘pay’; they were not liable to be sued for alleged deficiency in service. The Courts rightly frowned upon this logic and made it clear that as long as there were patients paying for treatment in that particular hospital, the Act applied to them. Extending the same principle to the social media, the ‘It’s free and always will be’ promise should not clothe networks with the authority to unilaterally make sweeping changes that affect users and in this context, non-users too. We do not pay for the social media but our presence fuels its business, its advertising revenue, its bottomline. These sites may argue that they are entitled to tweak formats or make whatever changes that catch their fancy.

Unilateral changes go against the grain of democratic principles that the social media draws its strength from and owes its existence to. These decisions probably stem from users having ‘Accepted’ all future changes while signing up. A blanket acceptance of terms and conditions prospectively, seems unfair. Perhaps a periodic acceptance form or notifications seeking acceptance for major changes may seem proper, at least for discerning users. Seek feedback from users before implementing changes; mere notifications won’t do. If you gloss over these updates, there are new features that may elicit strong disapproval. I’m referring to the new Confessions Page on Facebook. While Facebook insists there are safeguards against abuse and vulgarity, the first rush of revelations, comes across as anything but decent and acceptable. Peeping tom sleaze, raunchy ranting , posts to spite an ex-girlfriend or -boyfriend, sexual fantasies, juvenile vendetta targeting teachers, tarnishing reputations of institutions, threats — both veiled and direct… the ‘kiss and tell’ syndrome, the floodgates for gossip and rumour have been flung open with turbo-charged batteries. Criminal complaints of cyber bullying and obscenity are already coming in. Is it possible to police the Net beyond a point? So why create something you can’t really control, beyond just claiming you can? Should what youngsters scribble on the walls of their hostel bathrooms or personal diaries be allowed in the public domain? Opposing this feature is not about being prudish. It’s about being prudent. We all know that confessions can lead to transparency, uphold truth, create accountability and also empower individuals. If only politicians would confess more than they hide — their real assets in their declaration to the Election Commission, for starters. If only criminals would confess to their crimes and make trials less lengthy and traumatic for victims. If only bigots would confess to their biases and prejudices and turn into more tolerant beings. Hey, this is the real world. Online can easily go out of line. People like their privacy. Some secrets are even protected by legislation! Revealing sexual identity in a public forum may be a sign of empowerment. People today take out rallies proclaiming their identity. That’s fine. And such boldness must be respected, even welcomed. But these posts account for just a fraction of content on Confession pages. From what I’ve seen, the bulk is quite offensive.

The pro-Confession lobby may well argue that it can be quite a catharsis. Venting frustration — of any kind, anger and rage is best done in the privacy of a shrink’s clinic or at least in the company of well-meaning friends, not online. Expressing emotions is one thing. But what happens when people cannot control their emotions? Should they be allowed to make a public spectacle of emotional turmoil? What is needed here is privacy, not publicity.

If there was one redeeming aspect that distinguished Facebook from Twitter, it was the minimal scope for anonymity. With this new controversial offering, Team Zuckerberg seems to have kissed that goodbye.