No space is ever truly safe, even if we are in it alone. Alone, we are subject to tricks of the mind, the echoes of others’ expectations, the sudden bombast of forgotten obligations and regrets, resounding as soon as we endeavor to rest. With others, the presumption of safety can be a perilous, even fatal, misstep. But most of us have our crouching spots and crawl spaces: a parent’s house with its abundance of downy comforters, a best friend’s guest bed, a lover’s embrace.
Those of us who have the privilege of such spaces may find it easier to believe that they can be replicated elsewhere. Those who do not may be eager to find them anywhere.
The Internet affords both of these camps their illusions. Here, we are at once alone and among innumerable others; depending on where we position ourselves on any day, on any site, with any moderated number of virtual friends or followers, we can imagine ourselves impervious to harm.
This is one of few explanations for the many things we allow ourselves to divulge online: admissions that, if uttered aloud, would send the palms of our hands flying up to our mouths; the signs of extended mourning we hide from those who would rather hear a simple “I’m okay.”; all the secret prejudices we’ve gotten so deft at pretending we do not hold. We are telling on ourselves with alarming ease and frequency; it can only be because we have forgotten the Internet is unsafe — or that we have reached a point where we have too little left to lose.
Recently, Twitter, one of the most popular of my online spaces, has been locked in bitter land wars over intellectual property and moral obligation. I’ve watched, most often neutrally, as users have registered surprise, disappointment and betrayal when the experiences and ideas they’ve committed to their public accounts have been published elsewhere — with and without permission, usually with attribution.
Those reproducing their work are often doing so for daily content websites and cable news outlets — large corporate conglomerates who stand to gain revenue from the publication of tweets that writers hoped would be viewed within the confines of their online communities alone.
Once that perimeter is breached, reality becomes starker: every emotion, secret, and assertion was always up for the general public’s consumption; we’d just been able to push the idea of it — that our little corner of claimed space would hold such currency for others — out of our minds. Nothing once believed to be safe ever was; the scales of insularity fall from our eyes and we see that out carefully tended online communities were never really ours.
It’s easy for those who do not use the Internet (or those who use it with more strategic and sterile intent) to mock this. Always, the immediate aftermath in the face of an online community’s outcry is: Why didn’t you read the fine print? Your safe space was merely leased, never owned. Why did you entrust so much of yourself to it?
These questions are as central to defining ourselves as they are to nailing down why we use the Internet, despite how susceptible it leaves us to ill-treatment.
For those in need of attention, escape, an opportunity to deliver weighty confessions into passively receptive void, an online space will always be a tempting oasis. A dangerous community is still a community, our relationship with it wary and imperfect yet filled with the shared camaraderie of survivors. If we can still come to our online spaces, open and imparting, at the risk of identity theft, harassment, and rejection, it is safe to assume we believe there is much left to redeem in the niches of the Internet we’ve carved out for ourselves.
It is hard to abandon what you’ve built, even when it’s been breached, even when the confessions we sought to gate with privacy settings, block buttons, comment disabling, or tacit trust agreements are advertised to a broader, more cutthroat culture. We see in our own online musings exactly what the people who are paid to parse and promote them see: potential. Leased or owned, a homestead is worth defending, even as its former glory fades and we are enticed by the buy-out of bigger audiences.
Maybe these are unwinnable battles. We enter the Internet at our own risk and leave it with every risk brought to fruition. But I, for one, am not ready to give up on the power of online self-expression. I know well what offering one’s vulnerabilities to a semi-anonymous forum can do for its members. Perhaps there is something left to hold out for, after all. Perhaps we should just do so while with thicker bars on our windows and walls.