The Case for Coming Out

Jason Akermanis gives Brad Johnson a celebratory tit-gropeThe Twittersphere was in uproar on Thursday after footballer Jason Akermanis told gay AFL players to stay in the closet. It wasn’t long before Jack Marx replied on Crikey, brilliantly rebutting Akermanis’ article sentence by sentence. Almost overwhelmingly, public opinion seems united under one umbrella sentiment: Jason Akermanis is a homophobic retard.

To be fair, I can understand Jason’s point – AFL has a strong ‘macho’ culture and players are renowned for their juvenile antics. Do a Google News search for Brendan Fevola, Wayne Carey or Ben Cousins for just a few examples. And coming out can be an immensely difficult time. You’re telling your friends that you’re not who they thought you were (although chances are they’ve had suspicions). And for a footballer in the public eye, you’re subjecting yourself to even more attention that you probably wouldn’t appreciate. And you become an ambassador and role model for the gay community.

So I can definitely understand why gay sportspeople can be reluctant to come out. It’s not surprising that athletes like Daniel Kowalski wait until after retirement to announce their sexuality. But I wish they wouldn’t. As with all cultural change we need high profile campaigners, ambassadors and – unfortunately – sometimes martyrs. Would we have had civil rights in America without Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X? Yes, eventually. Would we have had equal rights for women without Germaine Greer or Gloria Steinem? Yes, eventually. Those influential pioneers accelerated the acceptance of their causes. Cultural change still would have happened, but it may have been twenty, thirty or even more years later.

Gay athletes now have a huge opportunity not just to be pioneers of acceptance, but more importantly role models for young people. Akermanis is right when he points out that same-sex attracted teens are at significantly higher risk of suicide. But that’s not a reason to stay in the closet – that’s a reason to come out, celebrate who you are and be a positive role-model. Gay celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris have been inspiration for thousands of people struggling with their sexuality. It’s time footballers were positive role models for a change.

What Facebook Should Do

The world’s largest social network, Facebook, claims to have more than 400 million users (a little hint to Facebook: if you have a page of statistics, timestamp it so we know when those stats were updated). But it’s facing a growing outcry from disgruntled users, as it frequently alters its privacy policy making more and more information public. The blogosphere is being flooded with posts explaining why you should – and why people havequit Facebook. Quit Facebook Day is a website calling for people to delete their Facebook accounts on May 31 in protest. Four students at New York University have raised over $US147,989 in initial fundraising to develop an open Facebook alternative with an emphasis on privacy.

It’s going to be a very, very long time before Facebook can win back the trust of many people. There’s a very bad vibe about the company, and its founder Mark Zuckerberg in particular, that will hang around a long time. But I do think there are a few, very simple steps Facebook should take which will give users a bit of faith. Jeff Jarvis has some more in-depth suggestions on his blog, but I think there are four crucial changes Facebook needs to make to begin with.

Decide once and for all how far is too far. Facebook needs to set the one privacy policy and stick to it. Since 2005, Facebook’s privacy policy has been changing every year – sometimes twice a year. Changing the rules all the time is a clear sign that you’re up to no good. Fuck off, Facebook. Develop one privacy policy, and stick to it. Define how far you’re going, and how far is too far. Explain it well – clearly, in plain language, because currently your 5,830 word privacy policy looks like the bastard child of a spin-doctor and a lawyer. In fact, given your attitude to privacy I’m surprised your policy isn’t just three words: “You have none.”

Opt In vs Opt Out. If Facebook is going to provide me with more services – like “Instant Personalisation” – then it needs to let ME decide if I want to use it. Currently, Facebook assumes it knows what’s best for me, and opts me in. Fuck off, Facebook. No matter how much information you have about me, you will NEVER truly know me. You can guess, and offer suggestions – and maybe you’ll be right sometimes. But often you’ll be wrong. So don’t force me to accept your assumptions. Let me say “Yes, THAT sounds like what I want!” instead of “Eurgh, I don’t want THIS!”. Currently, Facebook believes there’s only one Opt In or Opt Out choice users need – whether or not to use Facebook at all.

Everything is opt-in on Facebook. Participating in the service is a choice … Please don’t share if you’re not comfortable.

– Elliot Schrage, Vice President for Public Policy at Facebook, in this revealing Q&A session in the New York Times.

Privacy must be default. Facebook started out with everything private. So private, in fact, it was limited to universities only. Then it opened up to everyone, and since then it’s been a steady progression from private information to public. This, as Gizmodo suggests, is a bait and switch: suck users in by telling them that what they post is restricted to only their friends and family, then switch the terms and conditions so it’s open to everyone. Facebook needs to change everything to private and restricted, and give people the option to decide what, if anything, they make public. This is important because unfortunately, most people don’t realise how much of what they do on Facebook is public. Nobody reads lengthy Terms and Conditions pages (especially when they’re as complex as Facebook’s), as demonstrated when a video game company put a “sell your soul” clause in their sale agreement. And that’s what the website Openbook is trying to demonstrate. Openbook was quickly hacked together when Facebook announced its last privacy change, and allows people to search publicly viewable Facebook posts and updates.For example, these people just told the world they’re going to a strip club, and all these people have just chucked a sickie.

Simple Control. It shouldn’t be hard to add a drop-down menu whenever you post something – a status update, a photo, a link – that lets you determine who can see it. It works well for LiveJournal, but Facebook could do it better – let people choose which group can see it, or even specific friends.

Personally, I’m not bothered by the privacy debacle that’s surrounding Facebook. my profile is almost all completely open to the public anyway (the only thing I have restricted is status updates). I’m pretty open about my life, as I’ve written here before I’m comfortable with having very little privacy online. I do object to much of what Facebook has done recently though – I’m happy to make most of my information public, but I want to do it on MY terms, not Facebook’s. It’s an attitude thing, and I’m inclined to agree with tech entrepreneur Jason Calacanis’ assessment: Zuckerberg’s “drive, skill and fearlessness are only matched by his long record – recorded in lawsuit after lawsuit – of backstabbing, stealing and cheating.”

I won’t be quitting Facebook on May 31 – although I’d like to. All my friends are on Facebook, and until there’s a viable alternative I’m going to keep using Facebook to interact them. I’m going to be following Diaspora closely though, it’ll be interesting to see if a truly open, privacy-focused social network can be built to rival Facebook.

The Age shows a surprising lack of Fearless Good Judgement

Vile, obscene and offensive. That’s how the Herald Sun described tweets that comedians Wil Anderson and Catherine Deveny made about the Logies. And reading the sensationalist outrage the Herald Sun whipped up about them, I was reminded of Julian Morrow’s brilliant talk at the Andrew Olle Media Lecture last year. Co-founder of The Chaser and executive producer of their controversial War on Everything television program, Morrow knows a lot about public outrage.

The Deveny tweets are a perfect example of what Morrow meant when he described the ‘primary and secondary audiences’. The primary audience is the target of the media production. They’re the people that tune in each week to watch a TV show, the people that buy a particular newspaper regularly or subscribe to a magazine. The primary audience is also the followers of a Twitter user, fans of a Facebook page or subscribers of an RSS feed. The secondary audience, as Julian put it, are those who “come to access controversial content because it’s controversial”. And that’s what the Deveny tweet scandal is all about.

I was following Catherine Deveny’s tweets during the Logies (I was watching The West Wing though, which was infinitely more enjoyable). A few times I raised my eyebrows at some of her tweets, before shrugging and chuckling to myself. “That Deveny, she’s always stirring!” I thought. It didn’t bother me, because I knew I could expect that from her. I was her primary audience. The problem comes with the secondary audience gets involved. When the Herald Sun published selected tweets from her and Anderson – focusing of course on the more extreme – it sparked an outcry of disparaging comments. “What an obscene, nasty, vile woman she is” said one comment. “Absolutely disgusting,” said another, “making fun about molestation and paedophelia about an 11 year is disgusting”.

The old adage “if you don’t like it, don’t watch it” applies in new media just as it did in old media. If you don’t want to be shocked by Deveny’s tweets, if you want to live in a narrow-minded bubble, don’t follow her on Twitter.

Unfortunately, on Tuesday night The Age editor-in-chief Paul Ramadge sacked Deveny, saying her tweets were “not in keeping with the paper’s standards”. Which is odd, because her tweets have nothing to do with the paper. She wrote a column once a week for The Age, but these tweets were made on her own personal Twitter account, which clearly is not at all affiliated with The Age. As Jeremy Sear wrote on Crikey, “off-colour or not, her joking remarks were not in the context of her work for The Age. A personal Twitter feed, whether ‘public’ or not, is not a newspaper column”.

Sacking Deveny has prompted a massive backlash on Twitter and the blogosphere. Comedian Daniel Blurt lamented that “to be sacked for cherry-picking from over 30 Logies tweets reveals truths about the media and this country that are almost too distressing to contemplate.” Meanjin editor Sophie Cunningham blogged that “The Age have enjoyed her aggressive, provocative, and sometimes extremely irritating, style for some years but of course once she made a sexual crack about a child, well the sky fell in”. Morrow tweeted that  “deciding to employ Catherine Deveny is debatable but [The Age] sacking her now is deplorable. Ramadge: gutless, unprincipled, wrong”. Others saw the whole affair as a punchline: “I hope I don’t get fired for using my twitter stream to declare that @triplejdoctor is a VAGINA” tweeted Triple J’s Paul Verhoeven. The fake Andrew Bolt tweeted: “We gave Sam Newman a job on MTR just because he IS offensive”.

It’s clear from the huge backlash on Twitter that The Age acted rashly by sacking Deveny. They could have taken the Herald Sun head on and said “no, we are not the arbiter of social debate, we do not succumb to crass sensationalist journalism from rival newspapers”. But instead they folded, sacked her and lost the chance to prove themselves better. Julian Morrow said that “the temporary insanity of editorial crises does slowly abate and fearless good judgement can re-emerge with time”. But in the rush to placate readers from a rival paper, they capitulated. Let us hope The Age regains its fearless good judgement when the next scandal breaks.