Life on the Internet: No Fear, No Shame

Published May 3, 2018 in Warp & Woof

Life on the Internet: No Fear, No Shame

Why All the Fuss?
William Sundwick
Why are so many people so afraid of sharing “personal information” with the world, anyway? Lately, especially with Facebook, it has verged on mass paranoia. Warp and Woof, the blog, was launched on Groundhog Day 2017. It is now 15 months old. And, I have been an active Facebook user for at least four years. Twitter about the same (but less active). Before I retired three years ago from the federal government, I was already well-acquainted with the public nature of the Internet, especially security risks – it was part of my job.
Let’s explore some of the risks of online presence in a cool, rational manner. As always, bad experiences can color a person’s feelings. But, I submit, so can positive experiences!
Fear and resentment of powers unseen manipulating you are a large part of the bad feelings people have. But, the only difference between what advertising and propaganda have always sought to do and what modern data analysis can do is something called “narrowcasting.” The more data that can be harvested about you, personally, the more precisely advertising can be directed at you. The hope of the advertisers is that this targeting will diminish your resistance to the message. The product being sold will appear to be custom-designed for you, even though it may just be the advertising message that is so customized.
The recent revelation about Cambridge Analytica stealing Facebook user data for political advertising reinforces the concept that there is a great conspiracy to manipulate your consumer behavior. There is, but it’s not new. True, social media together with “big data” can potentially be much more effective than the older “broadcast” methods of advertising. But, to think that you are less able to resist a narrowcast message is to admit weakness and defeat. Maybe it’s really all the “other people” and their ability to resist that concerns you? Hence, politics.
Then, there is identity theft – the idea that personal information can be used as a key to enable burglary. It has happened to some people.  But, again, the digital world has plenty of entry points for this kind of intrusion. Point-of-sale equipment has historically been the most common. And, Internet purchases via credit card certainly add to the risk. That’s hacking. Best defense: don’t ever buy anything with a credit card! (And, don’t use online banking or brokerage services.)

Perhaps even more compelling than either the manipulation risk or the identity theft risk, for many, is the fear of hurtful trolling – or, even physical harm. It’s likely because of bad experiences in the past, either online or in some other form of bullying, that many will foreswear social media altogether, and would never consider publishing an open blog. They also would not want to comment on anybody’s open blog, unless they could remain anonymous. Even then, they may let their fears of losing that anonymity consume them.
While most of us claim we want to be respectful of other’s feelings, it seems there are more than enough nasty trolls out there who are looking for an opportunity to demean and bully. What they engage in is a concerted attack on free speech. It can be either selfish (it makes them feel good, like the schoolyard bully), or strategic (they’re trying to suppress dissent). In either case, it seems that resistance is incumbent upon us. It may be that “resistance is futile” for privacy advocates, and we surely should support cybersecurity efforts to protect us from identity theft (businesses have good reasons to protect their customers), but to abandon participation in the digital world is tantamount to surrender to malevolent forces. Living “off the grid” means you have been defeated, no matter how refreshing it may feel as a vacation. Nobody wants to admit defeat!
Of course, it is possible to mitigate the potential harm of online conversations. Regarding social media, choose your Facebook friends wisely, and if discussion groups get abusive, go away for a while. I’ve reduced my Twitter activity for that reason. The other Digital Golden Rule is: don’t be stingy with the good stuff – there can never be too many compliments and validations. They likely will be returned in kind. My Writer’s Group knows this rule well. Congratulations to all, we self-enforce.
And, remember, if you publish online (including micro-blogging in social media) and your readers lose respect for you, it’s on you! The final judge of the value in your posts should be you. It’s helpful to keep your purpose and audience in mind – and write well. Sometimes, ruffling feathers is your objective. Don’t be shy if it fits your larger purpose. Just be deliberate.
To recapitulate, we need to be mindful of scams like phishing schemes, but psychological manipulation and identity theft pre-date the current state of the Internet – i.e., social media — by many years. A more powerful fear for many seems to involve possible damage to their egos. Not to minimize real physical threats, but reasonable prudence about revealing our location, and being deliberate about what we say online, should alleviate most of those fears. Again, it’s not so different from the way life has always been. There have always been bullies. There have always been haters. And, it’s always better to confront a bully than to run away. You also confront by ignoring the bully.
Clearly, if I allowed myself to be consumed by these fears, I would not have started my blog. While my motivation for the blog is not to sell anything, I will admit to a desire to give something to my readers. Unfortunately, I can’t determine how successful I am unless I get feedback. Blogger stats are available which show me page views by article, by date, by operating system, and break it down geographically. But, page views do not necessarily equate to readers.
I promote Warp & Woof on Facebook, via email, in person to friends, and to my Writers Group. But, the responses, while always favorable, come back to me in the medium I used for the promotion – Facebook comments, email replies, in-person confirmations of reading or “seeing” the blog. Nobody makes comments in Blogger, itself (unless I beg them). That’s no fun. It’s true that the platform doesn’t allow for anonymous comments – but, I can anonymize the comment before I publish it, by making the comment myself, and quoting an anonymous reader. Perhaps that’s something I should promote, separately. Consider it done here. You must trust me, though.
So, consider this an invitation to follow Warp & Woof. Comment freely, I will anonymize before I publish your comments. It’s a blog with only one contributor (so far) – me! It contains my thoughts and expresses my interests. But, I’m interested in your thoughts as well. Help make it a conversation.

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