Claiming Virtual Identity in Digital Space

Much of the information that changes hands in the major social networks of the Internet is rapidly becoming (or in many cases already has become) overtly controlled by the company who owns and maintains the social media sites. Groups like facebook, twitter, instagram, and the like, each have different policies with regard to how they preserve and maintain the information on their domains, but essentially these social media sites only exist because they are populated by people who create and share the information contained within. Users of sites like facebook have, for several years now, become increasingly distanced from the rights of their own information, and the control over how that information is used communicated throughout their own social network. The companies who maintain backend code and physical server space exact control and ownership over content that is housed within their domains. The companies don’t create this content, yet they garner the rights to manipulate that content as if they did. It’s an odd sort of game of numbers that I’m surprised more people don’t think about when communicating and sharing ideas via the Internet.

Last year, Klint Finley at WIRED magazine published an article about a growing group of web activists who have been, for the past few years, working to find a way to level this playing field. Calling themselves the “Indie Web Movement,” they strive to place more power back in the hands of the people on the Internet–the people who create the content that is often used by larger corporations for gain. I think it’s inspiring to see the types of conversations these people are having about Internet communication, especially considering that many in this growing movement work for some of the companies who own a major quantity of our social media domains (such as Google; and perhaps this is also why Google is often on the forefront of user-end control over uploaded and networked information).

The unbalanced portion control over content within the digital space was one of the main reasons I left facebook back in January of 2012, and it’s why I’m constantly thinking about the way we humans think about the virtual reality and presentation of our “selves” in the digital realm. More regularly, as can be seen with mobile phones (among other similar technology), the digital sphere of communication and interaction is a very real part of our everyday, physical lives. How can people truly share, create, and interact if we do so through the artificial filter of groups like facebook who immediately take control over our information? Additionally, how does it make sense for one corporation to get increasingly rich from the everyday site users who generate the content (the model with which facebook works, as an example, appears alarmingly analogous to an exploited labor force, though the labor force is somehow convinced that they are volunteering their time)?

One site dedicated to educating users about information and control is Reclaim Your Domain, a site that endeavors to help “the average person understand what an online domain is, such as .com, or the numerous other top level domains…” claiming that understanding control over Internet archiving is “…one of the most important things you can do in the current digital age.” Their purview offers an interesting look at understanding that what you create and share is yours, and one way to foster a more real connection with that information is to have direct control over its presentation and access. That’s pretty cool, and also pretty important considering that it is a philosophy that kind of stands in opposition to the way most large social media sites structure themselves.

Another company that is trying to help users take more direct control over their created content is Known, run by Ben Werdmuller and Erin Richey. Known is designed as a digital collective targeted toward any major site where users create content by maintaining a copy of the information posted and organizing it all in one place. Using open source technology, they created their software to work in self-hosted servers in addition to allowing users to register for space with their own group. The idea has got quite a few people excited, and Klint Finley posted about them today in WIRED. I think the idea is really cool. If nothing else, software ideas like Known gets people speaking openly about thinking about how we create, share, and identify with our own information on the Internet.

It’s exciting that these ideas are taking shape. Because this stuff is more than virtual, it’s real. We spend our time doing these things. The Internet shapes how we think, how we think about sharing, and all of our collective content that exists out there is our shared digital-social space. There’s a lot of power in our ideas; shouldn’t they continue to be ours?

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