I was raised on horror stories about how ‘the government’ was going to track us (‘us’ being the adherents of the religion I was being raised in), monitor everything we did, use helicopters with heat-sensing devices to flush us out of our mountain hideouts, imprison us, separate us from our parents, and make us answer for our beliefs in a court of law (yes, even the children). And of course, we would be tortured. I recall sitting in a sermon one day as a seven-year-old and taking all this in, blow by blow. This was many years before the internet, home computers, and mobile phones were invented.
Any time there was a news article about the emergence of technology such as plastic bank cards, there’d be a sermon about ‘the cashless society’ and how it would be a device of government control, and that we should be afraid. I was literally having nightmares by this point. Technology was bad news.
Then of course, there was TV, that great scourge against which religious folk have railed since its invention. I heard plenty of things like ‘It’ll soften your brain!’ ‘What morals is it teaching young people?’ this latter being a fair question, I guess. I loved telly and still do, if I’m honest, but it’s always been a guilty pleasure, like I should be doing something better with my time.
Link suspicion and fear of technology with the doctrines of stewardship and frugality, and add to it the latent guilt associated with watching ‘the idiot box’, and it becomes wasteful, sinful and dangerous to spend time and money on technology.
With all those meanings tied into technology, it’s no wonder I’m a digital media late adopter. It’s a wonder I’m an adopter at all. And with digital media being based on ever-advancing technology, consciously developing an online identity was always going to be something I’d need to be forced into, rather than something I’d do willingly.
Some of the predictions came true
When I watch the news, I’m conscious that for some people in some parts of the world, the terrifying predictions of my childhood are their lived reality. Syria and other trouble spots come to mind. The idea of government surveillance has also come true, in some countries more obviously and frighteningly than in others. Governments around the world have used the events of 9/11 to impose ever-increasing levels of scrutiny of their citizens. So, while I hate to admit it, it seems the preachers were at least partly right.
Slideshare by Heather King 2017.
What they didn’t predict was the multitude of ways in which people, not just religious adherents, can be harmed by failing to manage their online activity and identity. These are the modern-day horror stories that have kept me from diving with abandon into the online world. The infographic below lists some of the recurring themes.
Infographic created by Heather King on Canva, 2017.
The Reverend Doctor Michael Fuller, in his 2017 article, Big Data, Ethics and Religion: New Questions from a New Science, says:
[T]he frequent occurrence of news headlines concerning the hacking of computers and publication of confidential material suggests that the possibility of security breaches will always be a problem (p. 11).
This has been my sense, too. Interestingly, Fuller sees a role for religious groups in trying to contain some of the risks of the digital age, by working with government and industry to apply an ethos that would remind data workers that people remain more than just the aggregate of the information that can be harvested about them. He suggests developing a code of ethics to help guide practice. It’s a good idea, but I’m afraid I’m not holding my breath. From what I’ve seen and heard of corporate behaviour, there will always be those who are willing to circumvent ethical safeguards in the pursuit of profit.
It seems like every week brings to light some new downside to having an online presence. In addition to the list of risks in the infographic above, there are now concerns that the blue light emitted by electronic screens is bad for us. What’ll it be next?
My evolving online identity strategy
Given all the risks highlighted above, my strategy has long been to keep as low an online profile as possible. But in the past year, and especially in recent months, I’ve had to accept that being at least somewhat visible online is a modern-day imperative for on-going employability, as I discuss in my podcast on this topic. So, despite the risks, I’ve raised the profile of my online identity by reviving a five-year-old-and-largely-neglected LinkedIn account; by starting Twitter, SoundCloud and About.me accounts; and by starting to blog.
In addition to the need to maintain my employability, I’ve decided to also use my online identity to help further the cause of animal welfare. I’m mindful that the word ‘activist’ can be polarising, and I’ve avoided using this label on my online profiles. However, activism (or ‘hashtivism’, as Ramirez & Melcalfe (2017) call it) is clearly what I’m primarily using my Twitter account for, as shown in the tweets below.
My profile pictures
The profile pictures I’ve used on all my social media accounts (Twitter, SoundCloud, LinkedIn, About.me) are business-like shots that would give an employer an idea of what I’m about – confident, cheerful, capable, and down-to-earth. But I’m hoping these images could also go some way to promoting the understanding that animal-welfare activists come from all walks of life, not just from the alternative community.
Moving forward cautiously
My two main motivations for boosting the profile of my online identity are employment and activism, and I had been thinking that a third motivation might be to create a home for the thousands of digital photographs and videos I’ve taken over the years. However, authors Ted Claypoole and Theresa Payton have given me pause. In their 2012 book, Protecting your Internet Identity: Are you Naked Online? they explain that digital images taken on a mobile phone or digital camera built after 2005 are likely to contain geotags that give the coordinates of where the image was created. I’ve just checked my phone and the location settings are switched off, so the images I’ve taken around home should be safe to post; however, I’m going to give it a little more thought before posting any more.
To conclude, I’ve always taken a very cautious approach to my online activity, and have had a very low-key online identity. I’ve identified the need to be slightly more enterprising and have engaged with just those social-media platforms that I think can bring me value in terms of employment and activism.
As Claypoole and Payton (p. 167) say:
Being on the Internet does not have to be daunting and scary. There are so many ways to constructively participate in our electronic global village, and to do so from the comfort of your own living room, that it would be a shame to miss these opportunities.
So I’ll follow their extensive advice about how to stay safe while maintaining an online identity, so I can make the most of the possibilities and minimise the risks.
Word Count: 1,182
Claypoole, T & Payton, T 2012, Protecting your internet identity: are you naked online? Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham, Maryland.
Fuller, M 2017, ‘Big Data, Ethics and Religion: New Questions from a New Science’, Religions, Vol. 8, Iss. 5, 88, pp. 1 – 11, retrieved 10 December 2017, DOI:10.3390/rel8050088.
Ramirez, G & Metcalfe, A 2017, ‘Hashtivism as public discourse: Exploring online student activism in response to state violence and forced disappearances in Mexico’, Research in Education, Vol. 97(1) 56–75, retrieved 11 December 2017, DOI: 10.1177/0034523717714067.
Young, S 2017, ‘Slipping Through the Cracks: Background Investigations after Snowden’, Surveillance & Society, 15(1): 123-136, electronic copy retrieved 11 December 2017.
Header Photo Credit
‘Computer Eyewear‘ by Michael Saechang (CC BY-SA 2.0).