Digital technology affords individuals with the access and ability to contribute to a diverse range of information and communities (Benkler, 2006). In real-life people become exposed to and part of different and “unmediated” (boyd, 2014) social contexts that extend from their home dynamics: a child may go to school as adults go to work. Speaking to Winner’s notion that “machines, structures and systems […] can embody specific forms of power and authority,” (1986) while there may be freedom to act within these constructs, there are still limitations on individuals’ agency. This essay explores the impact of communications technology on society through the lens of individual freedom to craft and sustain relationships and identities.
Prior to digital communications social networks were constructed locally: longer distance relationships sustained by those with time and funds for travel. Carrasco (2010) notes how technology has provided more opportunity for people to communicate and sustain long distance relationships. Financially and temporally cheaper than travel, the telephone presented society with the opportunity to sustain distance relationships through disembodied means. Yet, “phoning and visiting are part of the same social system, rather than being independent arrangements (Mok and Wellman, 2007)” (2010, original citation by Carrasco) and so the frequency of calls rapidly decrease over distance. Although the telephone affords disembodied and cheaper communications, it did not solve issues of synchronicity over time zones and international calls charge premium rates. Digital communications have seemingly solved this issue as its storage capabilities affords asynchronicity. Distance has become tangential: a message sent 50 feet and 5,000 miles financially and temporally costs the same online. Webcams and software such as Skype and Facetime present virtual synchronous face-to-face conversations while messaging software and smart-phone cameras allow for asynchronous video (Snapchat), audio (Whatsapp) and text conversations (Facebook Messenger). Now long distance communications are arguably normative in personal and work contexts. Still, distance serves an implicit role in society’s communicative orders as people speak most often with those “who are already a part of their extended [real life] social network” (boyd & Ellison, 2007) online.
Despite this, the affordances of affordable, disembodied, asynchronous communications have not only aided society, but have helped shape new social constructs impossible in real-life, supporting Winner’s proposition that “technologies are not merely aids to human activity, but also powerful forces acting to reshape that activity and its meaning,” (1986). Digital communications enable the formation of networked publics (Jenkins, 2006., boyd, 2010. Ito, 2008), whereby strangers from all over the world “can gather freely” (boyd, 2014) and mediate environments making them feel like their own. The technology affords collective freedom to build meaningful publics, especially where the members are not demarcated geographically or are relatively few and distributed. It is clear that digital communications stepped away from solely supporting the sustenance of relationships over long distances and afforded society with the freedom to establish new relationships intrinsic to the virtual world.
As “we look at the present through the rear-view mirror,” (McLuhan,1967) society applies familiar social orders to the digital world. In the early days of the Internet “online communities were organized by topic” (boyd, 2008) where publics shared knowledge, and engaged in critical discourse whether in computer programming, health-care, popular culture and so on. Forums on Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) predate social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, with crohnsforum.com dating back to 2003 (Wayback Machine, 2016). However, it could be claimed that the development of social media networks have amplified and redistributed these communities of practice into spaces where users more typically “dwell” online (Trottier, 2012). Social media companies, such as MySpace, injected familiar language of ‘friendship’ redefining the Internet as “a place for friends,” attracting millions of users to their services. These ‘free’ social tools in the hands of millions “beautifully support” (Shirky, 2008) cooperative communities where the content and recruitment is determined by its members, illustrating a collective freedom of speech and connectivity. Interest forum discussions typically centred around topics while now social media networks centre conversations of topics around individuals (boyd & Ellison, 2007). This means that individuals also have the freedom to participate in many discussions across a number of well populated online dwellings such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr.
The ability to act on beliefs “represent a qualitative improvement in the condition of individual freedom,” (Benkler, 2006) however, participation in networked publics is considered subjective (Jenkins et al., 2013). There may be people in publics who heavily participate in the creation of artefacts, for example football instructional videos; the organisation of and participation within online games; the discussion of football games, players and skills; and, so on. Individuals have the “capacity to form beliefs and to change them,” (Benkler, 2006) and so the variability of these beliefs and needs has an impact on participation. For example, in an IBD support group there may be higher activity amongst users who are going through a relapse discussing symptoms, medication and surgery (Coulson, 2013); yet, there are others in remission offering emotional support and information as well. Participation is complex and difficult to measure: motivations and acts of participation are diverse and changeable. In health support-groups alone there are five main categories of participation (Coulson, 2007). The complexity of participation is arguably an indication of collective freedom. It could be claimed that the acceptance of varying participation builds on the acceptance that users’ online selves are fluid: having the autonomy to move in, out and between publics as well using a range of diverse tools to participate with. While such freedoms for participation are also available in ‘real-life’, the effort to find, join and participate in any public could be costly financially and temporally.
This suggests that networked publics afford greater agency and nuanced modes of participation seldom witnessed in real-life publics. Benkler remarks that participation implies ‘action’ (2006), yet only around 10% of people within networked publics are considered highly active, implying a large proportion of inactivity amongst users (Jenkins, 2013). Yet, crucially as Jenkins points out, ‘lurking’ is a significant part of participation: ““Legitimate peripheral participation” is that learning through lurking and observing more skilled participants (1991 — Lave and Wenger)” (Jenkins et al., 2015). While lurking may not be considered active participation, it enables users to learn from others, about the community at large, its discourse and behaviours; a user may then decide they want to participate more, or they may be happy to learn from a distance. Significantly, 40% of Twitter users are described as listeners over contributors (Crawford & boyd, 2014). There aren’t such strict controls in online publics as to what participation must look like and can afford users the agency to participate differently within multiple publics (Turkle, 2011., Shirky, 2008).
Individuals are free to join and participate in more than one social media network, enabling seamless participation in multiple publics (boyd, 2014). Studies show that youth move between “mediated” (online) and “unmediated” (real-life) social contexts, understanding as it is the social constructs within each to “present themselves accordingly” (boyd, 2014). Turkle argues that “we are encouraged to think of ourselves as fluid, emergent, decentralized, multiplicitous, and ever in process” (1995) supporting the notion that technologies help enable us to shape and present ourselves differently through space and time. This fluidity that technology affords means that users can better compartmentalise interests and ‘author’ different identities (Turkle, 1995). This is supported by Koosel who remarks that “the real life identity of a digital identity can be kept completely separate” (2013). Turkle contends that “connectivity offers new possibilities for experimenting with identity,” (2011) in a “relatively consequence free” space that the internet affords; many perform desirable traits and behaviours online as practice for real life. Social media users have been granted the freedom and tools to craft and control multiple identities, shaping their networks and audiences as they do around work, interests, and potentially vulnerabilities (such as support groups).
Significantly however, the management of such identities is not a wholly autonomous affair: it is not “an individual act” (boyd, 2014) and “ultimately beyond individual control” (Trottier, 2012). A user’s network supports the shaping of their identity whether that is explicitly through “tagging the user in a photo or video” (Trottier, 2012) or implicitly through association (Schneier, 2015). Therefore, we have to question how far an internet user can take ownership and control over their own self-presentation, if it is considered to be constructed communally.
Winner’s notion that technology can be a powerful force to shape new meanings is poignant in the debate over what privacy means in the post-digital age. Turkle asserts that society’s growing necessity for constant connection, prevents people from uninterrupted, private contemplation. People are ‘becoming’ themselves with others through their devices: “feelings are not fully experienced until they are communicated,” (Turkle, 2011). Furthermore, this communication experienced through text-typing affords users time to construct their messages more consciously than through spoken word, making self-realisation a controlled and visual exercise. Society is witnessing a new kind of intimacy where the self (and its multimodal performance), scared of feeling alone, is constructed through and with technology and connectivity.
The notions of having the freedom to perform multiple identities and participate in networked publics presents society with a paradox “of wanting privacy and publicity at the same time” (Koosel, 2013). Social Media companies encourage users to produce and share information, and to grow their networks by ‘friending’ or ‘following’. “The real world affords us many ways of keeping public, private, and secret utterances separate […] online, by contrast, the default for many communication is instant, global, and nearly permanent,” (Shirky, 2008) therefore users have to “take active steps to limit the visibility of any particular piece of shared content,” (boyd, 2014). An example of this is in Marwick and boyd’s research that illustrates how some youth practice privacy through the act of steganography (2014) whereby private messages are cryptically displayed publicly, where only a small audience can fully understand its inherent meaning.
Although I have discussed technology’s impact on individual freedom to perform and control multiple identities, many technologists (and indeed Mark Zuckerburg in 2010) argue that “you have one identity. The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly” (cited by Schneier, 2015). While Zuckerburg may be alluding to the centralisation of Facebook for all our online social interactions, the notion of having one identity extends much further than on a social level. Angwin (2015) remarks on dragnet surveillance of first and third party trackers online, collecting behavioural information to create accurate dossiers about users. She discusses how this collection is invisible to individuals, and control over such data profiles is extremely limited from access to deletion. Further still, users do not have the right to opt out of such data collection, processing and sharing when arbitrarily agreeing to the terms and conditions of services. This further supports the notion that we are granted agency by central powers of control. Karl Marx comments on capitalist industries as “converting the workman into a living appendage of the machine” (cited by Winner, 1986). Although Marx describes and critiques industrial powers, it could be said that internet users are indeed the living appendage of the digital economy; this is supported by security expert Bruce Schneier who comments: “we’re not customers. We’re products those companies sell to their real customers.” (2015, original emphasis). While society has participated autonomously within such virtual social spaces, the inner workings of how online companies collect, use and profit from data is opaque (Angwin, 2015). Benkler notes that “with sufficient choice among pipes, and sufficient knowledge about the differences between pipes, the very choice to use the manipulated pipe can be seen as an autonomous act,” (2006). The lack of transparency and knowledge, strips individuals of their agency to make informed decisions over which virtual spaces to frequent and share data.
Building on the dystopia that social media companies encourage connection and sharing as a means to collect and handle more profitable user data, Jenkins suggests “turning active conversations of communities into aggregated data (and thus turning publics into passive audiences) strips these groups of their agency and rejects their capacity for participation” (2013). This capacity for participation can be two fold: firstly, as Angwin makes transparent: individuals do not have the right to control nor even participate in their algorithmically determined identities, but have to learn the consequences through obfuscated feedback loops (Doctorow, 2015). And secondly, reinforcing Foucault’s notion of prisoner self-censorship within the panopticon, that with knowledge of the gaze people behave differently and with less freedom (1995). The ‘Spiral of Silence’ (Doctorow, 2016) is already being observed online in response to such surveillance where people are disconnecting from social networks and the Internet (Angwin, 2014). It can be counter-argued that users still have the choice (and therefore the agency) to participate online at all, yet having online presence is a new phenomenon that is expected in many sectors and social contexts (Trottier, 2012). Connected technologies are becoming ever more pervasive (through the Internet of Things) that opting out is almost impossible.
Society is in a moment where social media users have the tools and freedom to perform and self-realise their identity; freedom to create meaningful connections, unhitched from space and time, which are values intrinsic to the virtual space; and, freedom to leverage technological solutions to safeguard and control the flow of information between different publics. However, the infrastructure through which this freedom is afforded is centralised, owned and controlled by multi-billion dollar corporations that ultimately have the power to permit such agency. While the digital economy relies on the collection, processing and selling of user information, which is a process that is invisible and unavoidable for users, collective public freedom and agency will remain an opaque negotiation.
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