Digital Native | By Nishant Shah
One of the strongest values the digital web has fostered has been the spirit of individuation and customisation. Even as we connect and make friends on the social media, there is a very strong sense of being unique. The very architecture of Web 2.0 is premised on the idea that what you see, what you experience, what you do and how you present yourself is special just for you. And yet, in a strange sense of irony, what gets rewarded on the digital networks is not uniqueness but repetition.
In the online world, things that get repeated become reputable. Take Google’s search engine, for instance. The mysterious Page Rank algorithm, which decides what shows up in the coveted real estate of the top 10 search results on the first page, depends entirely on how many other pages link back to the page in question. The entire process of linking back, or hyperlinking, is an act of repetition.
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Similarly, on our Facebook timeline, the posts that are displayed are not chronologically arranged. Instead, Facebook’s social analysis protocols constantly measure what should be of interest to you, what is getting popular, and what should show up higher on your news feed. Our different practices of liking, sharing, commenting, are judged not on the basis of the content but on the repetition of the content. This might explain why the more popular a post is, the more popular it becomes, even as a large part of the information produced on Facebook travels for a short distance across a few networks and then gets archived to be forgotten.
Phone-based applications like Secret, which encourages people to anonymously share secrets and have conversations which begin with the first friend networks and then move through larger networks of friendship, also use this ‘Friend-Of-A-Friend’ phenomenon that is a peculiar characteristic of the digital web. Understanding this foundational paradox, where on the one hand, the internet promises to make unique users out of all of us, and on the other, rewards us for doing the same things over and over again, is to get to the heart of questions around online privacy.
Many of our current online privacy debates focus on the trade-off between revealing information and getting services in return. In the Big Data societies that we live in, the presumption is, that giving of data is like an exchange of currency. What we produce as data affords us access to different applications, benefits, service deliveries etc. The implied idea in all these debates is that not giving data, not revealing information, keeping ourselves anonymous and silent is an option in the digital world.
However, “Digital Natives”, people who understand the true nature of the digital have already figured out that the internet in general and social media in particular, are designed to make continuous copies of everything. If you create one data entry on the social web, you can be sure that its multiple copies are made and stored immediately on distributed servers across the network. You might have complete control on who can see these copies, but you cannot dictate where these copies will be stored and how many of them will exist. Thus, when your friends leak your private information by the simple act of “liking” a picture, it isn’t something that they do with intention. Repetition, through such online habits, is the very basis of the digital social web. Repetition, as your seasoned netizen will tell you, is reputation. Privacy, contrarily, demands that information be static, that it be made inaccessible to repetition, that it be not used for measuring the klout and worth of the digital actors and objects. When Digital Natives make their choices, they are not informed by whether to share or not. For them, it is about whether to repeat and become reputable or go offline and stop being visible. And that is not a difficult choice to make.
Nishant Shah is Director (Research), Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore
Email at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story appeared in print with the headline Say It Again