The internet is a great leveller. In some senses, it can be a great tool for democracy – allowing people in all (well, many) parts of the world to have their say and, more importantly, to access knowledge in a way that was never previously available.
Wikipedia has become a real-life version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, full of information on whatever you want to research (with the same inaccuracies, errors and omissions as that fictional title). Facebook is an online, sort-of-public diary, and Twitter is a riot in Speaker’s Corner – with every know-it-all vying for attention and snatching the megaphone.
It has many other uses too. Without moving, we can watch movies, TV and YouTube videos from all over the world. Without the risk of being caught (or of getting a restraining order), we can silently and stealthily watch exes fall in and out of love, eat tortilla chips or pose for shameless selfies in the bathroom. Without speaking to a soul, we can amass armies of ‘friends’ and ‘fans’ and ‘followers’ – our virtual celebrity so convincing we get to the front of nightclub queues and utter the words, ‘Do you know who I am?’ Better still: we can use the web to dig out all the sexy images of Ian Thorpe – or of hot men in Speedos – we could possibly want!
The internet has also made it easier to do things in the real world. No longer do individuals have to content themselves with an entirely online audience – they can use Amazon’s CreateSpace or Lulu.com to print books of their ranting and raving, their epic poetry and their chiselled prose. This, of course, yields some gems that would never have found an audience otherwise – but it also increases the amount of chaff surrounding us on all sides.
Because with greater numbers of people having the ability to voice their opinions to a potentially vast audience, there is also a commensurate increase in the amount of noise we all hear. There are keyboard warriors and Twitter activists dedicated to the tiniest of niches, who fight the good fight with little else on their side but access to their local libary’s wifi. Then there are smug little egotists who write incoherent treatises on the minutiae of their self-indulgent lives (#sorrynotsorry).
Half my time is spent negotiating between these two extremes and deciding which voices I want to filter out and which I want to listen to – and this often calls for snap judgements. Publishers often help – the job of a press or a magazine is to curate worthwhile content within a given remit – to make it easier for you to find what you want. Recommendations from friends can be great, although memes, GIFs and soundbytes predominate – and except for the odd successful viral campaign, it tends to be the same stories shared online that are also covered in the mainstream news.
The truth is that even the internet has inbuilt power structures. Facebook selects whose statuses and photos you see in your timeline, based on algorithms that monetise our personal experiences. Twitter urges us to follow the web-famous and fills our screens with sponsored hashtags and cleverly devised marketing campaigns. YouTube and Amazon suggest what we should watch and read next – shaping the information we absorb subtly, while maximising their own revenues.
Meanwhile, the biggest corporations often sell our personal information to advertisers and even governments – all the better to watch you with, my dear. We’ve known for years that broadcasters and publishers have controlled discourse by selecting what we should know about and how that information is presented. Bias and propaganda aren’t new things. But we now also know that Facebook has experimented in controlling our emotions – with repercussions that could seriously threaten freedom of speech.
Some parts of the world are still cut off from the internet, or parts of it – whether that’s China banning Google, Turkey banning YouTube and Twitter, or people in the third world who can’t get easy access to mobile phones, laptops or even a dial-up connection.
The internet, then, provides greater freedom – but we shouldn’t consider it the answer to all ills. It is a flawed tool, and one easily used against us, but it is invaluable in so many ways. It connects us, creates spaces where we can create our own identities, and encourages us to write (even if with emoticons and ‘txtspk’). Blackberry Messenger has been instrumental in the organisation of demos, protests and even riots – offering a means to act upon injustice, but also a means to plan criminal activity.
As LGBT+ people, we also can’t forget the benefits it provides us specifically. When I was at high school, I used Faceparty and Gay.com to chat to other queer kids. I had an internet boyfriend for about six months back then. I found useful information on how to come out, what networks existed in the real world for people like me, what HIV was, and how to relax my sphincter before getting fucked. Crucial, sensitive information that I could discover at my own leisure and which has stood me well throughout my life.
I had lots of online friends who gave me advice and support, even when I had previously felt like I was the only queer in the world. That gave me perspective. That helped me feel I wasn’t alone . Before Queer as Folk in 1999, I had no other source of information on the LGBT+ community.
Before Gaydar, and then Fitlads, and now Grindr and its ilk, gay and bisexual men cruised streets and dark underpasses for anonymous sex. With sex clubs always under police scrutiny, websites and apps provide a (relatively) safe way to meet new people. Even then, however, there are people who have been murdered after meeting people on hook-up apps. It’s scary to think that the apps we use to live our lives freely can also be used to hunt us down like animals.
For reasons like these (and many more), there is an increasing resistance to web-intrusion by the more committed users. Virtual private networks and other programs allow for easier anonymity. Google Incognito covers your tracks somewhat by not recording your web history in the first place. But pirates and perverts sometimes linger in the shadowy, liminal spaces that the hidden web creates too.
As Afshan Lodhi wrote in her article this morning, it’s important to hear all stories – not just the ones the tabloids and TV news want us to hear. For that reason, it will always remain important. But freedom on the internet must also be maintained, and we must fight to protect that freedom. More of us should be made about governmental snooping on our web activity. More of us should fight the increasing commodification of our lives.
Especially as LGBT+ people, but also as free human beings, we should be aware of the risks posed by big business and politicians interfering with our internet usage. Google already knows your interests and habits. Facebook knows your moods, emotions, friends and associates. All of them know your location. They probably all know your sexuality and political beliefs too. All it takes is for someone to join the dots, and the web will turn you into a target.
Let’s bear this in mind when politicians debate web freedom. Let’s keep pushing for a freer internet – one that gives us the freedom to have private lives too.