by Dallas Cant
Just last week I came across Greg Ferenstein’s Medium article about the “Birth and Death of Privacy.” In it, Ferenstein notes that privacy, as it is generally understood today, is a relatively new concept and the desire to keep certain aspects of our lives with ourselves or those very close to us is a desire that has become possible only through the advancement of privacy laws and protective measures, especially around Internet usage.
Reading Ferenstein’s mini genealogy of privacy forced a serious perspective shift for me – negotiating how much I share about myself online, questioning the relationship between private and public, and tracing how data collection and systemic oppression infiltrates messaging platforms, social media sites, and search engines (I have learned so much about this from Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression) – are constantly swirling around my head. Yet these questions and swirls arise from a very new context of human experience, one which is forever in flux and rapidly changing. Dun Dun Dun… the Internet.
I come to the Family Blog Lines project as a recent undergraduate of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at the University of Winnipeg. It is here where I first met Dr. Fiona Green as a student, eventually working with her as a research assistant that was ~attempting~ to tackle questions of privacy and parenting in online spaces. I began reading, following as many rabbit holes as I could uncover in hopes of gathering a solid context – how are parents and kids online? Who is writing about parenting and privacy? How is Internet literacy and understandings of privacy taught to children and their caregivers alike? And then, a truly radical shift shaped absolutely everything about the Internet, and privacy too – Covid-19. While of course, the questions I was interested in didn’t go away as the virus spread, the virus has drastically shifted the conversation and continues to. Questions of access, as in, who can show up on the Internet and how, shifted to understandings of the Internet and the technology which allows you to get there as essential to staying safe and informed about the novel virus. The very question of ‘how are parents and kids online’ became less of a question and more of an essential component of life – ‘kids must be online in order to continue with schooling and socializing as safely as possible.’
Covid seems to have boiled down experiences and conversations around the Internet to what’s been at the foundation of online technologies since their inception – accessing and sharing information (now largely regarded as life sustaining and necessary) and connecting with others (perhaps this piece is understood as less ‘necessary,’ but from my own experience of physical isolation, connecting with humans in online ways has been lifesaving). Pre-covid, these two aspects of the Internet seemed to have informed so many ways in which families, parents, caregivers, headed to and created spaces for themselves and their communities in the digital world. The mommy blog, for example, gained such success in the late 2000’s because of the ability to share honest reflections of parenting, reflections which pushed against the polished display of parenthood (particularly motherhood) as seen across popular media (Andrea Hunter takes an in-depth look at this in “Monetizing the Mommy: Mommy Blogs and the Audience Commodity”). The ability to connect, learn, and share my own lived experiences have too been at the core of my own desire to log on, especially to social media platforms.
It seems then, that the Internet, at its core, exists to facilitate connection and to serve as an ever-expanding resource and archive of knowledge and experience. It allows humans to feel seen and be seen by others, especially nourishing connections between those with similar lived realities. And these features have tended to be at the core of so many human endeavours. So, while Ferenstein traces that privacy is indeed a recent concept and desire, the need for connection, relationships, and knowledge-sharing has always been around.
For me, covid has certainly exposed the bones of the Internet, what’s been so magical and nourishing about it this whole time. It has too, perhaps, exposed what the Internet could have been (or can be). How have the very real consequences of breaches in online privacy, of non-consensual data collection, impacted the ability to connect and share knowledge with each other, online? How has the negotiation of what we share about our lives shifted in the context of covid?
Through my work with Family Blog Lines, I’ll continue following these threads, drawing from past and ongoing research, as well as my own lived experiences to continue making meaning out of an increasingly chaotic digital context.