The power play for online privacy: A feminist perspective

Are we oversharing online or is it helpful to share?

Written by Katy Finnegan


In this age of social media, internet activism, and personal branding, it seems like more and more of our personal lives are played out (and splayed out) online. Having a platform to express yourself, share your experiences, and connect with others can be a wonderful thing, and it can be empowering for people who feel their voices are marginalized in day to day life. As women we know all about this. However, it is important to note that this culture of online sharing can have negative connotations. How much do you want to share? And how much are you sharing without realizing it? Here we interrogate the online confessional from a feminist perspective.

Keep it Real

On social media, many of us share details of our private lives – from that uhmazing smoothie bowl we had for breakfast to our opinions about pop culture and politics. While much of our online profiles are curated to show ourselves in a flattering light, there is a lot of stuff in there that simply can’t be faked. Rather, it is this strange blend of naturalism and fakery that defines our online presences, with authenticity as the desired effect. This can be a good thing. Take for example the body positivity movement, which encourages people to share un-airbrushed images of themselves online (FYI we’re not all 5’9 100 pound waifs). Or consider the many people sharing their struggles with mental health issues like depression and eating disorders in order to destigmatize sufferers and promote open dialogue as a route to recovery. Indeed, sometimes this confessional style can bleed out into other media, as evidenced by Queen of TMI Lena Dunham and her hit show Girls. In exhibiting her naked body onscreen as she navigates undignified sexual scenarios Dunham shares the private, often embarrassing aspects of female life that many viewers may find themselves identifying with (guilty).

On a platform where most nude bodies we see are those of thin, exceptionally beautiful and objectified actresses, Dunham’s self-exposure is a radical act. Other, less extreme examples of this may be seen on TV shows such as Broad City and movies like Jenny Slate’s Obvious Child (2014) which embrace female bodily functions, slacker narratives, and embarrassment with humour, changing the canon of the way females are depicted onscreen by sharing awkward, cringey, relatable aspects of female life.

In this way, confessional culture is doing some great things for feminism, but we also have to ask; is revealing personal information always an empowering act?


My Choice Despite this

People may still argue that it essentially remains your choice if you want to keep your private life private. However, in our online lives our personal information is often being taken, rather than given, and this is an important distinction. Digital marketing companies mine our data to tailor advertisements specifically for us. As the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal proved, companies like Facebook know all about you, and they have few qualms about selling your data to the highest bidder. While many of us have a dim awareness of the fact that our data is being stored, few of us really understand how insidious the implications can be. The key word here is “influence.” Big brands understand the power of “authenticity” online, and know that direct routes to consumers are often cheaper and more effective than traditional campaigns. Hence why you see your favourite blogger or influencer featuring certain products in their Instagram posts. On some level you know that this person has been paid to do this, but in the back of your mind a voice still says: I know this person. I like this person. If I use this product I can be more like them. And that’s the terrible genius of advertising, you know in a cerebral sense you’re being fed advertisements, but it doesn’t really feel like an advertisement. This same principle can be applied across the board, taking in products, brand names, pop culture, and even political and ideological opinions.

This is something that affects both men and women in our society, but it is worth noting the particular effect this has on women. If we look at the power of the beauty and fashion industries to play to our image consciousness, or even the increasing ubiquitousness of photo leaking (we’re looking at you, Snapchat) and revenge porn, as women we may be conscious of the ways in which our personal data can quite overtly be used against us. Because that’s the thing, every attack on or reappropriation of your data is just that: personal.

Keep it Zipped?

Overall, we can see that while expressing ourselves and telling our stories can often have positive effects, in many scenarios our personal information can be taken and used in ways we might disapprove of. So what can we take away from all of this? Should we continue to surrender our personal stories to the public realm in the hope that it will do some good? Should we just erase our online presences and be done with it? The answer is that there is no easy answer. In our society today the fight for privacy is a real fight, and the internet is the battlefield. The only thing to do is to remain aware of what you’re revealing, and consider the effects it might have. What are you trying to communicate about yourself? What impression might this have on others?

In addition to this, while nobody can be expected to read all those terms and conditions – educate yourself about your digital rights and data protection. Understand the consequences of your online behaviour and consider how you can protect yourself from insidious advertising (or worse). Your right to privacy is important, and while the internet can act as a wonderful platform for expression we need to be conscientious and keep the power of sharing in our own hands.

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