This paper explores some strategies that potentially balance the risks of ‘over-sharing’ with the rewards of social connection – this I think has become an increasingly unavoidable ‘challenge of our times’…
Self-presentation is clearly not a new phenomena but digital tools and platforms afford what Bernie Hogan calls an ‘exhibition’ of self as a revision of Goffman’s theatrical analogy that described mostly discrete front & back stage spaces…
In this paper I argue that, even allowing for the mediating and sometimes deleterious influences of algorithms, I maintain that sophisticated users – with a degree of digitally literacy - can curate their networked presence in a complex, evolving mesh of digital self-representation and embodied self-presentation… I frame these literacies in a conceptual space that I call ‘Intimate Citizenship 3.0’
So – a quick roadmap… First I’m going to spend about 4 mins speeding through the theoretical and social landscape for this presentation, then 8 mins describe and analyse some case studies… before raising 3 mins worth of research questions for further discussion and investigation…
Let’s start ‘context’ with a brief exploration of scholarly understandings of networked presence… While these ideas are becoming increasingly familiar to internet researchers it is worth remembering that they still have wildly different meanings in colloquial usage and among most internet users… including educators and policy makers.
Wellman & Rainie (2012) tell us that 'Networked Individualism' in daily life is ‘perpetual connectedness’,
Berlant (1997) tells us that ‘Intimate Publics’ equate, not to chest-baring autobiographical confession (although some of it is), rather participants sharing a worldview - shaping both the content they consume, their experience of belonging, and their self-representation…
Livingstone (2005) & Papacharissi (2010) tell us that, in order to participate publicly, we draw on private lived experiences & constraints and…
Meanwhile back in 2003 Plummer argued that ‘Intimate Citizenship’ involves ‘asserting the right to choose what we do with ‘our bodies, our feelings, our identities, our relationships, our genders, our eroticisms and our representations’ (Plummer, 2002, p17).
Intimate Citizenship 3.0 draws on intersection by these scholars alongside boyd, Papacharissi, Hogan, Warner and Lange… and, in part, emerges from my doctoral research with queer digital storytellers
The 3.0 is in deference to Tim Berners Lee proposition of the semantic web - challenged by vastness, vagueness, uncertainty, inconsistency and deceit (Lukasiewicz & Straccia, 2006)
So what are the definitive elements of Intimate Citizenship 3.0?
the individual capacity to speak across differences in values, capabilities, social capital, locative time & space negotiation of shifting terrains of intimate/privacy and public/activism and an understanding of self-exposure in the face of surveillance and risks of retribution it requires digital agency, and ownership of fluid but congruent self-representation
So a lot of Intimate Citizenship 3.0 hinges on understandings of privacy… Who needs privacy most?
Arguably NOT the average white, straight possibly American or Australian, possibly Christian middle class happy family…
However, imagine that you identify as non-heteronormative queer family or that you have a transgender child and that you live in one of the many countries that openly disapprove of these identities… I’m arguing there is a strong connection – that the strategies required by the marginalised group are increasingly required by EVERYONE ELSE
So how would you have an open, honest engagement in social life while preserving your safety and that of your family and friends?
So what social consequences does this have?
Through anonymity, pseudonymity? What’s the difference?
While a pseudonym is a fictitious substitute for a legal name, it does not guarantee anonymity.
While partially obscured images may confound facial recognition software and render their subjects unidentifiable to an unknown audience, however, to anyone who has even minimal knowledge of the subject, they are recognisable – and this thread can lead to them then being identified and located. A pseudonym relies on trust among known or intimate publics.
When it comes to sharing personal stories… often used as a strategy for speaking across difference, anonymity is extremely difficult to achieve – arguably impossible. Even untraceable ISPs are useless if an anecdote is specific in its nature…
Can the so-called ‘darknet’ or ‘deep’ web provide an alternative?
Certainly, for those wishing to conceal illegal activity from authorities, like purchasing illegal drugs or weapons, it might be useful to employ multiple ISPs to hide locations of engagement
However, ill-conceived pseudonyms or accidental half-revelations can still be traced to source and for every hacker or digitally sophisticated user, it seems there is potentially a web-crawler or algorithm that can find them…
…and for those who wish to find a secret space in which to seek support… it is, unfortunately, likely that others can find those secret spaces too…
In the examples I’m about to describe, it is the unanticipated consequences of self-exposure or a lack of sophisticated digital literacy in managing boundaries that are proving increasingly problematic for marginalised people.
In the last year or so there have been numerous international examples of the tangled complications of online privacy and publicness, and I’ll now briefly explore 3 of those – use of VK by queer Russians and homophobic neo-Nazis; Russian Grindr hack during Winter Olympics and the case of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning…
In 2013 in Russia a federal bill banned the distribution of "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" to minors. Homophobia thrives, not just at legal and political levels, but is widespread among the general population… according to a 2013 survey, 74% believe that homosexuality should not be accepted by society.
Deti-404 translates as ‘Children-404’ and plays on the ‘error 404 – page not found’ warning. It was established by 17 year old Lena Klimova, in March 3013 on VKontakte, which is the second biggest social network service in Europe following Facebook. Their motto is ‘Children-404. LGBT teens. We exist!’.
Group moderators approve membership of an ostensibly private group. However, while pseudonyms are available to all, it is not difficult to infiltrate closed groups in order to gather information about other members.
Olga is a 24 year old Russian teacher. She posted a brief message of support on VK Community Page called ‘Straight Alliance for LGBT Equality’. Several hours later she received a message from a member of another community page called ‘Parents of Russia’ demanding she resign her teaching position. After she refused to respond a pseudonymous member of the ‘Parents’ group posted her private photos and ‘some unpleasant information’ online. A week later ‘the story’ was leaked to the media and Olga was rung by a journalist who had managed to get her phone number from the school where she taught.
‘I told him that I was not a lesbian, that I was bisexual, and that I supported the LGBT movement and had never viewed that as a crime. My social networks contained no indecent photographs or information which could have been regarded as immoral, and there had never been any trouble with parents of my pupils.Naturally I have never told strangers about my orientation. I realise that a school is a special place, and in any case I would never have wanted to talk about such things there, that’s my private life.The article was reprinted in other media, and there was a story on local TV… The head-teacher …called me in. I did not get any homophobia from her. She said: “I am not going to discuss your views, you can think whatever you like, but we need to somehow get out of this pickle.” She had no intention of dismissing me, but she wanted the whole story to just die very quietly. But I had already realised that nothing was going to happen “very quietly”! These people are fanatical inadequates whose aim is to destroy other people’s lives.’
To cut a long story short she was later forced to resign because of her public political activism and libertarian views.
This image depicts representatives from a loose collective of neo-Nazis and Russian nationalists known as ‘Occupy Pedophilia’ who use social media in 2 ways – to locate victims and to promote their cause
Among varied reports of attacks in May last year, a gay man was burned to death in Volgograd after his assailants sodomized him with beer bottles and, weeks later, 3 men killed a gay man by stabbing and trampling him to death. Incidents like these are notable for the absence of police intervention.
There are hundreds of active homophobic VKontakte (VK) groups and the largest has 75,000 followers. The leader of ‘Occupy Pedophilia’ regularly publishes stylized videos of ‘sting operations’ or ‘safaris’ and holds regional seminars to help build their following.
Obviously, social network platforms can be utilised for any political and moral affiliation, and in this case have facilitated growth of both ‘Occupy Pedophilia’ and ‘Deti-404’ – however the expectation of privacy and security they offer is largely an illusion…
As is the illusion of privacy on the Russian version of Grindr… This is a screen grab from a massive hack of ‘Hunters’ that was reported just prior to the Winter Olympics this year. Over 72,000 profiles were deleted and users received a message saying ‘Warning: You will be arrested and jailed for gay propaganda in Sochi according to Russian Federal Law 134 Sektion 6.
So far we’ve looked at examples that constitute violations of trust in what are believed to be ‘private online spaces’. These violations are by individuals and perhaps governments… and arguably platforms that oversell there security. What about the highly sophisticated digitally literate users I spoke about earlier?
In 2010 a young American citizen, Private Manning, was responsible for a massive leak of classified US Army intelligence, via wikileaks. Clearly he was digitally literate and had officially endorsed social capital enabling him to access state secrets.
In August 2013 Bradley came out as Chelsea, requesting that ‘starting today you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun’ (press release, Aug 22, 2013).
During the trial, Manning's lawyers presented an email Manning wrote to a former supervisor: "This is my problem. I've had signs of it for a very long time," the email reads. "I thought a career in the military would get rid of it. It's not something I seek out for attention and I've been trying very very hard to get rid of it by placing myself in situations where it would be impossible."
Manning’s military identity was revealed by notorious hacker, Adrian Lamo. Transcripts of their conversation reveal an anguished Manning, full of bravura and passion for truth…
Some of Manning’s friends say they wonder whether his desperation for acceptance may have inadvertently led him to ‘over-share’…
So what conclusions can we arrive at? There are some striking similarities in these case studies…
The individuals involved are living in physical environments in which their chosen identities must be concealed to preserve personal safety They seek affirmation in closed or private online spaces that they assumed (not unreasonably) were safe While they use pseudonyms, the personal information they disclosed, links directly to their physical, locatable person and finally… the consequences were frightening and dramatic, in some cases violent and long term
Of course there are distinct points of difference too – Manning was clearly digitally literate and possibly should have known that pseudonyms – in this case ‘bradass87’ - are fragile… and of course, the punitive consequences he experienced were not directly linked to his transgressive identity, so much as his violation of military codes of secrecy…
But the transcripts also clearly link his understandings of ‘transparency of information’ and his desire to live his identity visibly and in the open…
The similarities in these case studies lead me to a preliminary hypothesis – firstly – that the privacy strategies employed by those most at risk and with the greatest desire to see social and cultural change – offer some insights that can be mapped onto a much broader population of vulnerable identities…
This frame requires moving beyond simplistic digital dualisms – comparisons between face to face interactions, and online self-representations.
Like this photo – an airport scanner – the vast majority of people simultaneously inhabit a body and maintain connection to a digital trace of that identity.
Who controls how that identity is represented and where that representation travels, is a more complex issue… and worthy of lengthy exploration.
And secondly – that – privacy is not purely an issue that can be addressed with regulation of platforms or progressive social policy… individuals also need to understand the nuances and potential consequences of sharing personal information in dangerous, or inhospitable, social contexts… this does not necessarily mean that individuals should be blamed for unintentional self-exposure… rather that our shifting and varied cultural understandings of privacy need greater investigation…
In this recently published monograph, David Brake calls for thorough debate of these issues before we become ‘the proverbial frog in a pan of water on a stove’. He outlines 2 possible futures and points out ‘even if we eventually learn how to live in a radically open society, the path from our present one to this hoped-for future seems likely to be a tempestuous one.’
Brake proposes slowing the ‘march of progress’ to give us time to adapt ‘or at least to march with our eyes open’. (Brake, 2014) So what does that look like?
In the case of queer Russian or Chelsea Manning, it might be something like this –
understanding that the identities that they are sharing are socially maligned, exercising caution when establishing trust Acknowledging that both face to face and online self-representation, even disguised or pseudonymous, carries risks Active weighing up of potential risk and reward Meticulous management of pseudonymity ownership of congruent identity and agency in it’s production
So, to conclude… and in response to the questions I raised earlier -
No, I don’t think our concept of pseudonymity is enough… and we, all of us, stigmatised or not, need to better understand the navigation of privacy and publicness in order to seek support… while this does not wholly liberate socially maligned people from the burden of stigma, hopefully utilising a conceptual framework of ‘intimate citizenship 3.0’ supports a safe engaged, networked presence… and therefore expression of diverse voices that may eventually counter stigma and lead to greater tolerance and cultural change
Thank you very much for listening… and please don’t hesitate to email if you have further thoughts to discuss…
Curating Networked Presence: Beyond Pseudonymity
Post-Doctoral Research Fellow
Centre for Communication and Social Change
University of Queensland
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‘Cyberbullying Law and the New School Year’ by CT Senate Democrats: http://www.flickr.com/photos/44616579@N05/6124355293
via Compfight - cc - by-nc-nd
‘Privacy, health, fears over airport X-ray’ by publik16 http://www.flickr.com/photos/22941790@N02/2904857669 via Compfight - cc -
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Russia’s neo-nazi sport:
Email from Manning to Lim, U.S. Army Records Management and Declassification Agency, April 24, 2010.
Barbie low angle:
‘The Female Complaint’ Cover:
‘A Private Sphere’ Cover:
‘Intimate Citizenship’ Cover:
‘2nd Anoniversary 13’ by Anonymous9000 http://www.flickr.com/photos/25414324@N02/4280254856 via Compfight - cc - by-nc-nd