Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Saying Goodbye to Online Lurking

They say that only 1 percent of people on the Internet create all the content, while the other 99 percent passively show up to view it.

But these days, lurking is becoming much more of an active behavior than it was before, because even just looking at content is something that gets reported back to other people.

As of this week, if you look at a post within a Facebook group, the social networking site will tell the rest of the group that you saw it and when.

That means an end to the question, “Hey, did you guys see that thing I posted?” because the evidence is right there.

But it also points to a world where one of the most core online activities — lurking — gets increasingly stamped out.

Passive becomes active. Lean back becomes lean forward. Stalking becomes, well, showing you’re interested in someone.

Facebook, which recently added similar features in its messaging products, is not the only service making online communications more accountable. Many messaging and social products also have “read receipts.”

For instance, it’s a prominent feature of the mobile social network Path, which tells users who has scrolled past their content and who has visited their profiles.

Evite shows which people open an invitation, OkCupid shows users who has visited their profile, and email systems like Outlook let users attach delivery and read receipts. BlackBerry Messenger has long shown if a message has been seen, and now other mobile chat services like Apple iMessage do, too.

Some people love this increased digital accountability. It makes conversations feel more alive. If you know your conversation partner is aware that you have read a message, you may feel more pressure to reply quickly. And vice versa — if you know someone hasn’t seen something, you can assume they’re offline and unavailable, not just ignoring you.

For some, it’s a kind of personal analytics. Drew Olanoff wrote Wednesday on The Next Web, “It’s my content, and I should be able to know exactly who saw it.”

Josh Constine at TechCrunch made the next logical leap and asked whether Facebook planned to include “read” receipts in its company’s core products, news feed and photos.

Groups and messages are one thing — they’re communication and collaboration, where accountability is somewhat natural. But socializing is a different beast.

Facebook declined to answer Constine’s question, but that’s obviously something the company must be considering.

Facebook now shows whether and when members of a group have seen a message.

As for the big picture, all these little pieces of accountability make online communication more like real life. If you’re talking to someone face to face, it’s a lot harder to pretend that you didn’t hear their last sentence. And now the same is becoming true online.

The larger forces driving toward more online accountability are everywhere. There’s the rise of real names (Facebook, Google+), video calling (Skype, FaceTime), service providers reviewing their customers and vice versa (Uber, Airbnb), unified identity and login systems (Facebook, Twitter), and all the Facebook Open Graph apps, such as Spotify, that automatically report every song played or action taken.

But even so, most of the time we are online, we can still choose whether to declare our presence. We can opt to wander around the Web in passive mode, never leaving a comment on a blog, perusing other people’s vacation photos, stalking our romantic crushes and reading celebrities’ tweets.

Personally, I love that kind of stuff. I know I spend way too much time wandering the Internet, rather than interacting with people, going outside or making things.

So, this world of “read receipts” is scary for us lurkers, but at this point, it’s clearly where things seem to be going.

I guess it’s time for active mode.

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock/fcarucci)

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik