Secure Identities on the Internet

Katharine Gelber offers a thoughtful review of The Offensive Internet in the Australian Review. (David Levine conducted an interview with the book’s editors, Martha Nussbaum and Saul Levmore, available here.) I contributed an essay to this volume, and I found both the other essays in it and the conference it was based on very illuminating. As Gelber notes,

Anyone who believes the Internet to be exclusively, or even primarily, a site for the democratisation of the media or a mechanism to enhance participation in public discourse needs to read this book. This outstanding collection tackles the dark side of the Internet, its use by ‘cyber mobs’, liars, aggressive misogynists and purveyors of hate to distribute their views largely with impunity, while their targets suffer the consequences of this predominantly unregulated arena for speech. . . .

The ubiquity of the Internet, the permanence of posts, and the accessibility of data through search engines that do the looking for you mean that material that makes its way online can affect people’s lives over the long term and in profound ways. When you combine these features with the anonymity of posters and the difficulty of regulating the Internet, it means that people do things and say things on the Internet that they would not do or say in face to face conversations, or at least if they did there would be legal and moral consequences. The Internet as a medium provides a uniquely powerful and wide reaching mechanism with which to do bad things, yet relatively little work to date has acknowledged this aspect of it.

A growing feminist literature, ranging from the work of co-blogger Danielle Citron and that of Ann Bartow, to interventions in social web and other communities, also highlights these problems.

Some will say: if you don’t like a given online community, just join another one. But the ubiquity of options on the internet often amounts to little more than a mirage of choice. You may really like Google+ or Instagram and find it to be a more congenial environment than Facebook or Twitter. (As Liz Kelley put it, “Instagram is homey; Twitter is noisy.”) But just try dragging all your friends or followers to them.

Moreover, digital networks aren’t just leisure activities for many people. Public deliberation occurs on them. Entities like Klout have started a competitive game of influence accumulation with career implications. And they can be important forums for the development of identity, as Rob Horning explains:

The more effort we put into crafting identity online, the more material we supply to Facebook and search engines to associate with contextual ads and other marketing initiatives. For this organizational work we are compensated not with wages but with a stronger sense of self, measurable in hard, quantifiable terms. How many friends do you have? How often do they update? How many photos have you shared? How many times have they been looked at? And so on.

All of this is to say that as Web 2.0 has infiltrated our everyday life, it has transformed our habitus — sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s term for our manifest and class-bound way of being in the social world — into an explicit productive force without our conscious consent. By continually enticing us to produce more and enrich our self-concept, it presents a clear danger to our ability to maintain a coherent sense of ourselves — to sustain a feeling of ontological security, as Anthony Giddens puts it. Inundated with digital information from all sides — from friends, marketers, and the fruits of own unbounded curiosity — we can fritter away our time shuffling and reshuffling the little bits of novelty without performing a synthesis.

The data deluge and constantly shifting metrics of digital capitalism are hard enough to deal with. The types of civil rights concerns raised by The Offensive Internet shouldn’t be burdening anyone.

X-Posted: Madisonian.

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