Several years ago I visited Charleston SC on a vacation. While there I toured the Aiken-Rhett House, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 and is now a museum. I love museums and I love old houses, but the Aiken-Rhett House is unique among all the old house museums I’ve ever been to: it retains an outbuilding that once contained slave quarters (discreetly described as “servants’ quarters” in the NRHP nomination form).
I arrived at the house shortly after it opened to visitors for the day, so had it pretty much to myself. I followed the audio tour through the main house, then walked out the back door. Two nearly identical buildings flanked the courtyard—to the left, the stables; to the right, the slaves’ quarters. I went up the stairs to the second floor, above the kitchen. The small rooms, which reminded me of a bargain motel, were where the slaves had once lived. They were mostly bare—I remember a wooden bed frame without a mattress and a simple wooden table—because slaves’ furnishings were not saved as heirlooms and very few have survived the years.
Alone in the building, I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be a person without rights—one who could be sold as easily as the horses in the stables across the courtyard to another plantation, in another state, perhaps separated from my family forever. What was it like to have no choice in one’s life and work, and no legal recourse? To be not a person but someone else’s property? I could not quite wrap my brain around it, but I had the sense that I was standing in a very special place, almost sacred. It is one of the last surviving slaves’ quarters—structures that, thankfully, will never again be built in the United States. A century and a half ago this nation fought a war to decide (among other things) that slavery was to be abolished and all people, regardless of the color of their skin or where their ancestors came from, would have the most basic rights as human beings.
Seventeen Dollars a Share
So imagine my surprise, a few days ago, when I discovered that I (or, to be more precise, my Twitter identity) was on sale for $17 a share on a website I had not previously known about. I was not pleased. Actually, I was outraged. The first analogy I thought of was not slavery but prostitution. Somebody was selling me online, without my consent or (until recently) even my knowledge. There was a dollar amount attached to my name! I was relieved to see that no-one had purchased any shares, but how could I guarantee that it wouldn’t happen?
Fortunately Empire Avenue (the site in question) responded promptly to my e-mail asking them to remove me from their website. For that I am thankful, but in the meantime I have engaged in a few discussions about why I reacted so strongly. (A brief search of Twitter tells me that women react more negatively to this site than men, but not exclusively.) After all, there are other sites like Klout, PeerIndex and Twitalyzer that “score” Twitter and social media users based on their online activity. How are they different?
Simple. Those other sites give users a score, like a report card grade or a batting average; they don’t put a dollar value on social media users. This is, I want to emphasize, my personal Twitter account and my handle is a variation of my name. To the people who engage with me on Twitter, it is me. It’s not a corporate account, so I cannot think of Empire Avenue as a stock exchange. I never issued an IPO on my personal identity.
But there’s a little more to it. Those other sites use algorithms to determine my score. I can’t influence them, except by my online behavior, and other people can’t vote me up or down like it was a popularity contest. As such, I can more easily ignore it, if I choose. Putting a dollar sign in front of the number makes me uncomfortable. Allowing other people to virtually buy or sell shares of me creates an awkward dilemma: either people don’t buy into me, which is faintly insulting, or they put a price on my value as a person, which is (to me) a bit more insulting.
Thinking it Through
Clearly I have to think through some of the counter-arguments I’ve read.
- It’s like buying and selling shares on a stock exchange. Well, it might be, if this were a business account. But it’s my personal account and I am not for sale.
- It’s a game. I disagree. It’s only a game if I agreed to play, and nobody invited me to play or asked my permission to be listed. If this were an opt-in game, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. (But I still wouldn’t join.) I don’t think online “games” like Mafia Wars are fun, either. I knew someone who got in trouble with the real Mafia, and his parents had to take a second mortgage on their home to get him out of trouble and prevent him ending up in the emergency room—or worse. Some things just aren’t fun—or funny—and in my mind buying and selling people is one of them.
- The money isn’t real, it’s virtual. True enough, but my Twitter identity is a big part of how people see me online, and many of the people I know through social media I have never met in real life. That virtual self and those virtual relationships are important to me. And there are a few people I’ve met online first, then met face to face. Don’t you think it might be awkward meeting someone for the first time who “owns” part of you? I do.
- It’s about your “real world ‘value score’.” That’s from Robert Scoble’s blog. By “value,” Scoble seems to mean literally assigning a monetary value to someone and allowing others to bid. I don’t value people that way. I prefer old-fashioned values (in the ethical sense) to dollars any day.
Those are just my first impressions. I’m still thinking about this and reading what others have to say. Maybe I’m missing out on some Next Big Thing. But that’s OK. I’ve missed out on a few of those, and I’ve learned it’s that there’s always another Next Big Thing around the corner. So if I miss out on this one, I’ll catch another.
There’s a Reason It’s Called Social Media
As I wrote in a comment on Scoble’s blog, “I enjoy the approval that comes with a connection on LinkedIn, a follower on Twitter, or a comment on my blog. They are personal engagements, not a financial transaction.”
That’s why it’s called social media. The most interesting people on social media have conversations, even if they are sometimes fleeting. They are social. It can be banter around the water cooler, or sharing a link because you think it’s interesting and somebody else might like it, too. Occasionally a conversation grows too large for Twitter and moves over to private e-mail or a blog, a conversation by phone or Skype, or a face to face meeting. Those are rare, but they can be special.
You can do whatever you like (after all, you’re a free person with rights), but I’m keeping the personal and the financial separate, even in my virtual life.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about this over the past two days—from not knowing anything about Empire Avenue to having a very strong gut reaction. (And I again want to say how pleased I am that they removed my information so promptly.) I would love to know what you think. Have you looked at the site? Have you checked your own listing or invested in anyone else? Do you think of it as merely a game or (like me) do you find it impossible to separate it from your real self? And if you know of any other blogs or articles about it, I’d like to have links.