A while back I was startled while researching someone in a work context, to come across a bunch of NSFW self-portraits she’d posted online under her real name. She was mid-career in compliance-related roles at big, traditional companies, and the photos raised questions for me about her judgement and honestly her competency. Didn’t she realise the images were public? Hadn’t she ever thought about what could happen when somebody –a colleague, a boss– randomly googled her? Was she making a considered decision, or just being clueless?
I was surprised because nowadays, that lack of caution is so rare. That’s partly because people have gotten a little more sophisticated about privacy controls, but mostly I think we’ve just given up. We can’t be confident our stuff is private today or will stay private tomorrow — if we didn’t know that already, we know it now from The Fappening and the Guardian’s uncovering that Whisper tracks its users.
And so I think that most people, most of the time, have decided to just assume everything we do online is public, and to conduct ourselves accordingly. It’s a rational decision that’s resulted in a tone and style we all recognize: we’re cheerful about work, supportive of friends, proud of family; we’ve got unobjectionable hobbies and we like stuff like vacations and pie. Promotions and babies and parties yes, layoffs and illnesses and setbacks not so much.
Secret, the app that was super-hot last winter, was briefly an exception. People talked on Secret about bad sex, imposter syndrome, depression and ADD, their ageing parents, embarrassments at work. You may remember the engineer who posted that he felt like a loser because he, seemingly alone in Silicon Valley, was barely scraping by financially. It was vulnerable and raw and awesome.
But I ended up uninstalling it pretty fast, after one too many humble-brags showed up in my feed. (The final straw was a guy boasting about how he’d bought a new iPad for a kid at the airport, after watching her mom get mad at her for dropping and breaking theirs. Blah.) I couldn’t bear seeing people diligently polishing up their self-presentation as confident and fun and generous and successful, on a service whose whole point was to enable risk-free vulnerability.
That feeling of always being potentially in a spotlight leads us to relentlessly curate how we self-present online. And that is bad for us.
It’s bad for individuals because we run the risk of comparing our own insides to other people’s outsides, which makes us feel crappy and sets us up to make decisions based on flawed assumptions. Brene Brown: “If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.” Erving Goffman: “To the degree that the individual maintains a show before others that he himself does not believe, he can come to experience a special kind of alienation from self and a special kind of wariness of others.”
It’s bad for society because it makes people feel alienated and disconnected from each other, and also because it has the effect of encouraging normativity. If we all self-monitor to hide our rough edges, our unpopular opinions, our anxieties and ugly truths, we’re participating in the narrowing of what’s socially acceptable. We make it less okay to be weird, flawed, different, wrong. Which sucks for young people, who deserve to get to freely make the stupid mistakes of youth. It sucks for people who’ve been abused or poor or sick, and who shouldn’t have to hide or minimize those experiences. And it sucks for anybody with an opinion or characteristic or interest that is in any way unconventional. (Yes that is all of us.)
Anonymity was one of the great things about the early internet, and although we benefit enormously from the ability today to quickly find and research and understand each other, as individuals we also need private spaces. We need, when we want to, for our own reasons, to get to be predictably, safely, unbreakably anonymous/pseudonymous, online. That’s why I use Tor and other FLOSS services that support anonymity, and it’s why I avoid the closed-source, commercially-motivated ones. I trust Tor, like a lot of people do, because it has a track record of successful privacy protection, and because it’s radically transparent in the same way, and presumably for the same reasons, that Wikipedia is.
I’ve got nothing to hide (and oh how I hate that I feel like I need to type out that sentence), but I value my privacy, and I want to support anonymity being understood as normal rather than perverse or suspect. So I’m increasingly using tools like Tor, ChatSecure, TextSecure, RiseUp, and DuckDuckGo. I’ve been talking about this with friends for a while and some have been asking me how to get started with Tor, and especially how to use it to access the deep web. I’m working on a post about that — with luck I’ll get it done & published within the next few weeks.