The Internet’s Pronoun Problem

Eleven years ago, someone put a gun to my stomach and took away, among other things, my wallet, my phone, and my gradebook.  I actually asked the mugger to drop the gradebook*.

(*Before grades were computerized [yes, that was last millennium, thank you for reminding me], that was the only way to sanely keep track of students’ performance across a semester; the loss of it was mindbending for me, not only because this was a record of things that had happened, but also because it was a system I had created (based on years of others’ experience) to organize where each person in the universe I called my class stood in relation to what we were learning, and to how I was teaching it.)

The officer who responded to my 911 call, and who later accompanied me to court to testify against my assailant, had been on this particular beat quite some time.  He was at once highly offended that something should happen on his watch, on his turf, as he was resigned to the fact that it did happen.  His most memorable comment was wry, and philosophical.

“The guy has a pronoun problem,” he said. “He can’t tell the difference between ‘mine’ and ‘yours’.”

So, ok.  I’ll admit that made me grin.

A decade and change later, the Internet has a pronoun problem.

It’s a problem empowered by the fact that we are driven by instinct to perceive what is close to us as ‘mine’ or ‘potentially mine’. Just ask any two-year-old. More than that, something called the endowment effect prompts us to feel as if, once an item is in our possession (our pocket, marked with our name on a website somewhere) that it is ours.  If we effect change on the item, our belief that we own it only strengthens.  And once we begin to rely on the object, and our changes on it, to communicate and organize our lives (see: my gradebook, your Facebook page), those bonds are strengthened even further.

Given that the digitally privileged members of our society access online things through computers (either at work or at home) that we consider “ours,” those things that we access seem to become ours, or partially ours in the process. Most websites feed that feeling by putting our login name at the top, allowing us, for better or for worse, to give feedback on products, articles, and images, as well as allowing visitors to change the look and feel of their online experience by changing items within the experience, from the background, to the avatar-icons, to actual avatars in games.  So we start calling things ‘mine’.  My Twitter profile.  My WoW character. My Facebook status. And the companies that produce these platforms love that we do so, because it means we’ll come back again and again.  They want us to feel ownership.

Until they don’t, not really.  For instance, just after a design change or a restructuring of privacy settings, or the “accidental” gathering of data, or not so accidental, that we consider private, and very much ours.  Then they wish we’d all hush up and stop whining.  Because in point of fact, the code and the methods and the patents that generate these platforms is, to their way of thinking, theirs.  And their changes that they have effected on their platforms will benefit us (and their investors) in ways that we are not yet aware of.

That may be true.  But we don’t see it that way.  We see someone coming into the system that we’ve put time into changing and stamping with our information, and playing God.  Or at least reminding us that we aren’t actually in possession of anything at all, even those personal items (data, photographs) that we posted to “our” page.

Cue frantic Twitter blasts, Facebook complaints, and dramatic departures from “our” platforms to newer platforms that swear they’ll never ever ever do anything like that.

It’s not just major social media sites.  Netflix hit this wall, beyond the fee-hikes, by (at least in public perception) sundering a site where people had spent time organizing their reviews and insights about movies into two brands, with two feedback points.  Websites that don’t telegraph their redesign plans and get user buy-in before they launch a new site face flashback from surprised users.  Folks simply don’t want “their” stuff to change without their approval, and sometimes not even then.

It gets uglier when it’s not a community page, but our own data that is changed or yanked from our hands due to online ownership questions.  Cookies that let others know where we’ve been without our assent. Companies that don’t guard our data properly, or employees who misuse our trust in order to benefit themselves, suffer from a combination of hubris (SQL injection gambits were a known issue before the biggest data breaches) and ownership-confusion (the employee who takes your identity data).  We suddenly realize that we didn’t have full physical control over those things, that they were not in fact, completely ours.

And, in the case of online publications – ranging from news items, to stories, to recipes – there is a sliding scale of ownership.  Aggregators argue that they are linking to the full article, and are therefore not implying ownership. Folks that resell content written by others without asking permission to do so – well, that’s another case entirely.  Apparently, Cooks’ Source magazine wasn’t aware that things published on the internet are not automatically the property of everyone, not really.

Companies need to figure out a way to finesse the fine line between “ours” and “mine” and encourage innovation and ownership, while somehow keeping a grasp on their brand.  Not everything needs to be personalized.  Owners need to be recognized as owners, and who owns what needs to be much simpler than a 2,000-word Terms of Service document.

What we decide to do with our pronoun problem will shape how the Internet shapes us in the future.

What’s your opinion? (see what I did there?)



  1. Great piece, Fran. Lots to ponder. I’ll do so, and maybe come back with an actual opinion that is ‘mine’. Until then, know I appreciate yours! 😉

    Ann / Vint

  2. As Ann posted, a ton of linky topics worth a more studied response. What you made me think about right away was this prevalent gullibility of most socnet users to imagine that *any* of their IP that they post there belongs to them. Of course it doesn’t. Um, didn’t you read the Terms of Use? That’s been true since AOL’s first chat rooms in the early 90’s. Should socnet companies paste a big sign on their home pages reminding users about this? Well yeah, but caveat emptor, suckas.

    Sorry to sound hard-nosed, but really, let’s not be naive. If folks want to ensure the ownership of their IP within an online social environment, consider an open-source alternative:

    Surreptitious use of your IP is of course another kettle of yog-sothoth. It’s illegal and shouldn’t happen, but does as surely as someone who swipes your credit card number. In these situations, the Web makes seeking recourse harder, as you pointed out in your “who’s minding the store” example above. You just don’t know what got passed to who when, until those Viagra ads in Swahili start bombing your inbox.

    Perhaps a more enlightened way to approach this issue (as you also mentioned) is to take the approach that, really, we don’t ultimately own anything. But while whatever it is is in our custody, be it a new idea, an old house, a string of code, or a poem, we do our best to care for it, preserve it, and share it with others who would benefit most from that encounter–in short, to be the best curators we can.

  3. Fran: Yes to all of the above and guilty as charged. Regarding the FB changes, they’ve made a huge assumption–and boneheaded one I think –that I want to share the chronology of my life with all of my friends. Uh, no. Makes for a heartwarming commercial if you’re Justin Beebop, but no thanks. As for transparent browsing shares, again let the opt-in beware. If you’re linking a skeevy site or feed to FB, you’re asking for it. Really. Old crank that I am, I always mediate everything I publish on social networks. Always always. Is FB guilty to trying to make us look stoopit? Probably, but given the compulsive voyeurism and narcissism that drives most social networks, most users probably will approve.

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