Digital Literacy, Identity and a Domain of One’s Own

I must have about 10 domain names. That’s a lot less than some people I know, but 10 more than most people. Two of the domain names are those that I own on behalf of other people (my children) while the rest are for various projects and things I’ve done over the years. My doctoral work neverendingthesis.com is on one of them. I’ve got projects I share with other people (tidepodcast.org). And, of course, I have a canonical domain which includes my first and last name (dougbelshaw.com).

Ten years ago, if I knew someone primarily through online means, you could guarantee they had their own domain name. It was just before the big explosion in social media use which meant that if you wanted a space online, you had to create it. This provided a barrier to entry in terms of the digital literacy skills required to register a domain, set up the necessary software and, of course, design, build and upload a website. The upside was that your digital identity was yours. That domain name could be your gamer tag, it could be your real name, it could be a heteronym — it was up to you!

As the web developed, both in terms of technologies and business models, it became easier to get a space in which you could express your thoughts online. However, instead of sharing these thoughts via a “Top Level Domain” (TLD) such as a .com or .org, you were merely granted space on someone else’s server. Instead of yourname.com, you might grab (if you were lucky) twitter.com/yourname or youtube.com/yourname.

This, of course, isn’t much of an issue if you have your own canonical domain. You’re at an advantage if your .com  or .org domain comes up on the first page of the major search engines, provided you had the digital literacy skills required to include meta-data. But, what happens if you’ve got a popular combination of first name and surname? What happens if you became active on the web after it became “normal” to have a domain of your own? What happens if you just haven’t got the digital literacy skills or inclination to carve out a space you control?

To me, the difference between having your own domain(s) and using someone else’s to create your digital identity is best described through the following (imperfect) metaphor. In the UK, there’s “right to roam” legislation that allows the general public to walk over some of the land belonging to private individuals and organizations. However, that’s not the case in other countries such as the USA, where you have to stick to designated paths. While the land you can see while walking down such paths can feel like public property (and, therefore, partly mine), it is, in actual fact, nothing of the sort.

Identities at Stake

The same is true of vast swathes of the web. Twitter and Facebook are publicly-traded companies and beholden to shareholders looking to make a profit. Google, which owns YouTube and processes over 70% of the world’s search traffic, is likewise legally obliged to return a profit. All of these companies provide services that are free at the point of access in return for your data and attention (which they monetize through advertising). We already know that this is reason enough to curate our own sources of information, but it’s actually more important than that: our identities are at stake.

At the end of August, Audrey Watters wrote an article that riffed on a post by Maha Bali about the fact that we “lease” domain names rather than owning them outright. If you don’t pay your rent to a domain registrar, then someone else gets your domain name. It’s as simple as that. The whole of the web, therefore, is effectively leasehold.

There’s a difference, though, between creating an “identity” through someone else’s service and creating your own through a domain that you’ve leased long-term. Again, to use an imperfect analogy, it’s the difference between having a 99-year lease on some land and building a house to your own design, versus taking out a short-term rental in a huge apartment block. There are some things you’re just not allowed to do with the latter — either because of the way the environment has been designed, or due to various policies that you’re forced to sign in order to live there.

We’re living in a world of tethered capitalism, meaning that other people and organizations are in a position to cut off our online access, resources, and audience. All that needs to happen is that we step out of line one too many times. On an everyday micro level, this may seem unlikely. Zooming out to a macro level, meanwhile, shows that these things really do matter. We’ve all read of people who have been fired for their “misguided” social media updates. It’s the reason for the ultimately-futile epidemic of ”my views do not represent those of their employer” statements in social profiles.

Ditching the Short-Sighted Approach

Short-term rental of a digital identity via someone else’s platform or service is a short-sighted approach to take.

More worryingly, algorithms can be exploited to silence or discredit those with non-mainstream opinions. If that doesn’t work, then the architecture of the web means that the authorities (or significantly powerful/well-funded group can simply remove your means of expression. Over the years, I’ve sometimes idly speculated about — and, on occasions, actively investigated — ways to create an “untakedownable” blog. This would be an outlet that other people, organizations, and ultimately, authorities, would not be able to remove from the web. Long story short: it’s extremely difficult, if not ultimately impossible.

Initiatives such as A Domain of One’s Own are a fantastic starting place for thinking about “ownership” on the web but, returning to Audrey’s post, it’s the spirit of the initiative rather than the letter of it that’s important. Citing the value Virginia Woolf placed upon having a “room of one’s own” in which to write (which was the origin of the initiative’s name), she moves on to quote approvingly Debra Schleef who emphasizes the importance of “the need for a place to write and create without fear.”

We usually think of fear as something primal, as the kind of experience we get when watching a horror movie. Everyday fear is less like that. It’s manifested as worry, as existential angst, as a need to please those in positions of authority in order to keep our access, resources, or audience. It might be something as important as retaining our job so we can pay our mortgage. When we’re motivated by fear, we act differently. This affects our identity, both online and off. Thankfully, you’ve got more control of areas you own than those you merely rent.

A world where one’s primary identity is found through the social people-farms of existing social networks is a problematic one. Educators and parents are in the privileged position of being able to help create a better future, but we need to start modeling to future generations what that might look like. Let’s start with a domain of our own, but let’s keep pushing that envelope in terms of our digital skills to fully realize our own digital identities.

Banner image CC by Gareth

Many thanks to Laura Hilliger (zythepsary.com), Ian O’Byrne (wiobyrne.com), and Eylan Ezekiel (ezekiels.co.uk/eylan) for comments on earlier drafts. They all, I’m pleased to say, have a domain of their own!