Have you ever accidentally written on a dry-erase board with a permanent marker? I have, and it’s no fun task convincing the permanent ink to disappear. Likewise, posting private information about yourself on the Internet usually results in the same frantic efforts to remove the dark blemishes from your otherwise spotless reputation. Most of us have learned to look at the marker before using it to make sure it isn’t permanent, and some people even remove permanent markers from the whiteboard room altogether. On the internet, however, we are putting locks on our digital markers with fences around them. Rather than consider what we share, we are attempting to blindfold all of society so that only certain people can see who we want everyone to believe we are. Are we over-compensating? What impact does this fear of permanency have on our identity, our relationships, and society?
“Internet privacy” is a trending catchphrase these days with even the ACLU getting involved in the fight for greater protection of users’ content. Ironically, the ACLU and others are fighting for an open, unregulated internet. It seems to me that these two ideas are mutually exclusive. Having an open internet does, in fact, provide us with the opportunity for great growth as humans. We can collaborate on ideas, we can break stories, we can begin to understand each other better, we can hold corporations and leaders accountable, and we can have access to more shared knowledge than ever imaginable. But is that still possible if we, at the same time, fight to put up fences everywhere we go on the web?
Social networking is a performance – it is little more than a series of conscious decisions to show your “self” to others in ways that are carefully chosen, edited, and distributed. It is art, each brush stroke calculated and each color measured, so that representation seen by those within your walls understand you the way you’d like for them to. What these digital fences do is ensure that one’s carefully constructed online identity is secure – inaccessible by those that might somehow alter it. I find a great example in my wife, a woman with a sincere interest in understand people. She regularly posts articles, quotes, videos, and other content online that challenge her and others to (re)consider how we live our lives and the decisions we make regularly. In doing so, she has made a few people so uncomfortable that they have “defriended” her on Facebook. What this means, I think, is that what she contributed to the community so challenged the identity of some, that the intrusion threatened their identity. The discomfort was best alleviated by removing her from the conversation. On an Internet where “privacy” reigns, that unfortunate consequence stifles the opportunity for transparent dialogue.
Is it a coincidence that as corporations moved into social media that privacy became a big concern? Absolutely not. Companies provide us jobs, and in a hyper-capitalist society, a major part of who we are is determined by our occupation. So, as companies monitor the web to maintain a positive image of its brand, employees are expected to represent the company in a way only determined by the policies of each company. That means that we cannot be “real”. That tie that we have to wear to work everyday and the silencer that mutes our political and religious opinions at work carry over into our private lives in fear that we might lose our jobs. Demands for “privacy” then become an effort to maintain 20th Century societal roles rather than allowing the progression of a digital society to reimagine how humans relate to each other. It seems to me that those in power understand the power social media gives to those who have traditionally had only a small voice in society. In an effort to silence those voices, this idea of “privacy” is propagated hegemonically so that even those who could benefit from social media fight for fences that will ultimately silence them and return the megaphone to the corporation.
And not only does “privacy” threaten the Internet’s ability to promote understanding, and not only does it perpetuate roles of subjugation, but it seems as if the rhetoric around it is baseless anyway. When someone posts content on Facebook or Twitter or even this blog, he/she leaves a trail pointing right back at them despite his/her best efforts at remaining hidden. For example, and I hope this doesn’t dissuade you from commenting here, if you leave a comment here under a fake name and even if you use a fake email address, I still have access to your IP address which gives me the coordinates of where you accessed the internet to leave the comment. Anywhere you go on the internet, that information is accessible. Your best efforts to remain anonymous or hidden just far enough behind the tree line to remain unnoticed are ultimately pointless.
Privacy is an illusion, an attempt to control individuals by regulating who has access to your created online image. I encourage you to lift the privacy settings on your Facebook accounts even at the risk of allowing people to see the image you’re portraying online. Be transparent. Visit openbook.org and search on a topic that is being discussed on Facebook. Comment on it and break the ice between yourself and a stranger. On the internet with social networking sites that are free of privacy fences, we can cross boundaries and borders. We can begin to understand each other and hold each other accountable. It will make for a better world. Are you willing to risk it?