Networked digital technologies have provided extraordinary means of building social connections and democratizing access to information. As tech journalist Andrew Shapiro characterized the situation in the late '90s, the internet represents the principle that "[w]hat was once a privilege of large organizations--control over information flows--has been decentralized and distributed ... [i]nterconnected and in everybody's hands" (Stadler, 1999). This decentralization is more specifically manifest for Shapiro in the degree to which users can direct their own inquiry through tools like search engines and seek out information instead of passively receiving it. Further, the sheer volume of available opportunities for expression is larger. As Wired magazine editor and technologist Chris Anderson has long argued, demand on the internet (whether cultural or commercial) generally reflects the "long tail" statistical principle, or the shift away from "a focus on a relatively small number of 'hits' (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail" (Anderson, 2006, p. 1). For Anderson, this represents a technological environment in which a greater diversity of ideas and products can theoretically flourish.
The growth in platforms for user-generated content represents a particularly seismic shift in the way we communicate and organize our social lives. According to 2021 Pew Research center data, nearly 70% of adults use Facebook, while over 80% have used the video sharing platform YouTube (Auxiere & Anderson, 2021). As media scholar Alice Marwick (2013) puts it, "[w]hat was once a niche pastime called 'computer-mediated communication' is now central to many people's social lives" (p. 2). Marwick likewise notes how platforms like Twitter and Facebook are credited with providing new affordances for collaboration. For instance, they are popularly thought to have facilitated the uprisings of the Arab Spring in 2011, and for some scholars they represent "new models of organization and by proxy [enable] radical social change" (p. 3).
Yet these same networked digital technologies have also had a profound impact on how we must negotiate our visibility to others--whether those others be corporations, the government, or our fellow citizens in a social or professional capacity. Media scholar Tim Dwyer (2015) documented various ways in which the services and platforms that enhance our lives come with privacy tradeoffs. Our use of search engines, for instance, also contributes to a "massively ongoing accumulation of personal data" by the companies, who contend that doing so "is improving their ability to provide better personalization of search." Other applications commonly use geo-location information from mobile users as a means of offering "useful contextual information, often based on the past behavior and preferences of the user," yet in doing so they of course also accumulate a detailed picture of our movements (Medeiros, 2017, p. 347). Nonetheless, the commonality of these privacy tradeoffs led security scholar Megan Ward (2021) to conclude that "[t]he public has largely come to accept government and private company surveillance as an unwanted but necessary requirement of online life" (p. 346).
The present article sketches the...