In one of my courses this semester (“introduction to digital humanities”) we are asked to make biweekly blog posts to “think aloud”, rant, engage in debate, etc. Several of my classmates balked at this (citing issues of security and privacy, mostly), and others were excited, especially with regards to the ease and informality of web publishing. Plus the tantalizingly dangled carrot of getting known in internet circles, publishing work on well-read sites, possibly leading to alt-ac* jobs in the future.
None of these debates and hesitations over issues of security and privacy ring especially new to me, as I hold them myself. When I first started blogging, on ye olde LiveJournal back in 2003, my journal entries were locked to “friends-only”: only other LJ users with accounts that I had approved could view my posts in their friends feed. Neither security nor privacy seemed to be a huge issue; the terms of service seemed legitimate to my grade-10 mind, and besides, I was fifteen: who would hack me? Or so went my thoughts.
The issue was less of security and more about privacy, anyway. What if people from school found it? What if my sister did? I didn’t need to add any more ammunition to bullies’ arsenals.
That didn’t stop me from accruing a small but lively set of friends on LJ, individuals who ranged in age and location and whom I mostly met through message-board-based roleplay. Judge not lest ye be judged, dudes. Once I got to university, I collected a few friends irl who used LJ to add to my friends feed, but my journal remained locked.
In 2007, however, a few of my friends ended up leaving LiveJournal over what came to be known as Strikethrough (a suspended or deleted journal on LJ was shown with a line through the name). The journals were deleted without warning for listing interests in topics such as rape, child pornography, incest, and pedophilia. LJers were outraged – as a lot of the journals listing the above interests were creative writing groups, book discussion groups, and survivor support groups, which obviously did not condone the taboo activities. You can read more at the link, but long story short, that was my first experience with censorship of expression on the internet. Many LJ users ended up migrating to InsaneJournal as a consequence (or joined the ranks on LJ-clone DeadJournal, though it was never as popular).
Interestingly, I read it as a violation of security, but not of privacy: as far as I knew, LJ users’ (and groups’) interests were available for view even to non-friends or non-users. I wonder, and still do, what would have happened if the censors had actually had access to the content of the journals: would they have gone on a delete-spree? The cynic in me says yes, but the idealist in me insists that this is an important question, and evidence of a line between security and privacy that is often disregarded.
I’d been on Facebook since 2006, though it was and still is a deeply unsatisfying blogging platform, as the privacy settings are difficult to navigate, never mind the creation and maintenance of friends groups with different levels of permission to view / comment on posts. Blogging on Facebook seems to me a deeply narcissistic enterprise, as your account is quite literally one big user profile that shows off who you are, and neither privacy nor security seem to be much of an issue for FB top brass OR users.
I was vaguely aware of Dreamwidth, as I followed the scans_daily comic community over to the new DW platform after they left LJ (due to Strikethrough, I believe) back in 2008. The mandate for DW states that it was “born out of a desire for a new community based on open access, transparency, freedom and respect,” or so sayeth their Wikipedia page on September 16, 2015, at any rate. I retained my LJ account; I believe I signed up for InsaneJournal and might have had a DW account, but it is lost to the internet as I put little to no effort into re-establishing myself there. After all, who was going to track me, a broke Canadian undergrad?
A friend convinced me to join Twitter around this time, but micro-blogging had little to no pull for me, and it seemed extremely abstract and to be honest, empty. There weren’t a lot of people Tweeting back in 2008, or at least, none that I cared to know about, and privacy settings were actually a huge downside. Originally, my Twitter feed was locked, and only mutual friends could see my feed (as I had been used to with LJ), but that meant that I had very little to say or see in my feed on most days, so I often forgot about it. “Micro-blogging” was pretty much the opposite of what I wanted to do anyways – I mean, look at this. I’m no Victorian novelist, but this is getting pretty lengthy.
Luckily we’re nearly up to the present, because in May 2010 I went to Japan and when I came back in fall 2011, Tumblr had entered the scene, Twitter was getting crowded, and I had given up on LJ almost completely, as fewer and fewer of my friends were still logging in and blogging.
I have a Tumblr now – several in fact – some that I keep under wraps, and one that I’ve linked to from my About page on this blog. I’ve had conversations with other Tumblr users who tell me frankly that they like Tumblr because it’s about the last (popular) blogging platform on the internet that they feel affords them anonymity. Anonymous blogging on LJ, IJ, DJ, DW, or heck, even Blogspot/Blogger or Xanga is still a thing, but it feels less like joining a community of likeminded individuals and more like shouting into an empty, poorly lit warehouse.
I can sympathize, in this day and age where Google dogs you with your own information, attaching it to your email, your search engine, your video viewing habits on YouTube, your social media activity (I’m looking at you, G+, despite your ultimate ineffectual nature and poor excuse for network creation), your instant messaging… the list goes on. Facebook does the same. Twitter keeps trying to get my phone number. Snapchat already has it, though it’s more akin to an instant messaging service than a blog platform. Vine seems to be the product of an unholy union between Snapchat and YouTube, raised by Twitter – as microblogging goes, it’s revolutionary in my opinion, but it’s still micro and insecure as heck.**
Whether blogging, journaling, Tweeting, or any of the myriad other forms of putting yourself out there on the web, it has become harder and harder to maintain the security that comes with anonymity in order to assure the privacy of one’s personal information.
I’ve been blogging in one form or another for the last decade and a half, and from my vantage point, issues of security and privacy have not in themselves changed much. Locking a journal or post, or hosting it on a password-protected server, or even encrypting it, is not going to stymie the efforts of a talented individual (or individuals) who want at that information. What has changed is the sheer volume of people who are now online, and the ways in which people’s personal data online is increasingly seen as an asset to advertisers. Also, the lengths to which individuals or corporations will go to access that personal online data in order to use it.
There’s an adage that “the internet never forgets”, which I take to heart as both warning and comfort. While on the one hand, Facebook tracks what you have typed regardless of whether you decided to post it or not, on the other, it is possible to recover information such as election promises that have been deleted and hold politicians accountable.
What it boils down to, in essence, is that one is forced to self-censor. Privacy and security are very nice concepts, but something that most large companies shouldn’t be trusted with. The example of Strikethrough on LJ, the ongoing farce that is Facebook’s security settings, the fact that Twitter use is rendered nearly obsolete by applying security measures, not to mention the accrual of search habits and browsing behaviours by companies like Google, have all compounded in my lifetime to add up to a Foucauldian present day. These companies aren’t evil, though. They’re just doing their jobs, and doing them well. Which is perhaps worse.
Basically, what I’m saying is: it’s natural to be worried about privacy and security, and to take measures to ensure it. It just, in my experience, doesn’t matter very much.
(For secure browsing, the TOR project can be of use; secure email can be accessed with protonmail.ch. But who wants to remember like seven different passwords and not be able to log in to the same chat client that everyone else uses, amirite?)