First, consider this: In Berlin, this late autumn feels like minus 20 degrees, ice-cold winds are sweeping everyone off the streets and into their favourite pub to congregate over beer and herbal tea. What might appear quite comfy thanks to wooden tables and plushy sofas has recently become dangerous terrain for lovers of digital privacy. Most cool cafés and bars list not only Beliner Kindl and Club Mate, but also free Wi-Fi on their menus, so a lot of us take out our tablets or MacBooks as soon as we have settled down into a chair or sofa. Sometimes we might also read.
A little more circumspection might be wise though, as this is when the social-media mugger is most likely to strike: “Hey, I just saw you're reading Murakami... I really like him, too!” Everything can be a conversation starter, from art to Club Mate. “Everyone seems to be drinking it now, how uncool.” Nothing out of the ordinary so far. Conversations need to be started somehow and spontaneous discussions or serendipitous meetings are usually the most exciting. “So you're a writer? I'm also doing art... on the internet.” Yet, no one has any time for a proper conversation. Three minutes provide just enough time to make a comment about Berlin hipsters before the mugger takes off.
digital muggings in our favourite bar
In his pocket, the mugger is carrying away the Facebook name of his startled victim. In a few clicks, the interminable procedures of the Facebook universe are set in motion. Years ago, we could still write down a wrong email address, invent a name, scribble our mobile number into indecipherability or pretend we weren't on Facebook out of principle. Back then, most of us would have laughed about social-media mugging. If you Google 'social-media muggings' the term comes up within the context of muggings and burglaries planned and timed by criminals with the help of social networks. But this is a different kind of mugging. A mugging that takes place in the bars and cafés of Berlin – and it's a lot more common.
How can you defend your privacy in these times of inescapable internet-access without taking recourse to the ugly truth: “No thank you, I don't want to be your friend?” Nowadays, it is only a matter of seconds until fictional Facebook names or similar inventions are exposed as creative means of digital self-protection. If you are still adhering to the politeness codes of the 20th century and can't voice an outright refusal, you will have to be more inventive. Unless you want your accounts in social networks to be inundated by social-media muggers and to constantly live with a bad conscience.
The following five strategies don't guarantee full protection against all sorts of friendship attacks, but they should deter the majority of social-media muggers:
the ultimate social-media mugger protection
1. Next time you go to a pub, take a highly complicated Derrida book along, preferably with a minimalist dark blue Suhrkamp cover. This will scatter most social-media muggers of the Murakami type. If you also take a pen and keep busily underlining random sentences, everyone will understand that you are a very busy intellectual with no time for superficial gossip. It would take a very steadfast and convinced mugger to break through your post-structuralist wall.
2. Come up with the most vacuous name possible (Sarah James or John Smith for example). When the social-media mugger types it into the Facebook search bar, randomly point at the first user of the same name with a blurred or unrecognisable profile picture.
3. Keep sipping your beer while explaining that you are only visiting Berlin, but live in a boring little town where you are studying to be a bank clerk. This is only credible if you are not sporting a full hipster attire.
4. Create an entirely new Facebook profile reserved for social-media muggers. It might take some time to make it look legitimate (number of friends, pictures, posts etc.), but it will then serve as an excellent tool to assess the steady increase of social-media muggings.
5. The ultimate mugger defence strategy (only for two people): as soon as you notice that you have attracted the attention of a potential social-media mugger, start looking serious and affect a nervous twitch of the mouth. Stay extremely friendly when the mugger strikes, placing extra emphasis on the following lines: “We're really sorry, but we're just having a really personal conversation. Actually, we are breaking up. That's why we need some privacy if that's okay.” This will elicit an empathic smile from even the toughest mugger who is sure to disappear back into his corner. Make sure you never go back to the pub in question, though, unless you want the failed attempt at making conversation to transform into a terrible flirt.
Credits go to Chris Stevens who coined the term for this new phenomenon of digital friendship attacks in the real world.