Digital Geography: Regulating Bodies on the Internet

by Nick Thornton

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Have you ever tried to change your current city on Facebook? Maybe you would like to let your friends know that you now reside in ‘Funky Town,’ ‘The Uplands of Duncan,’ or ‘In My Darkest Thoughts.’ You might have noticed: you can’t. Facebook has a list of acceptable cities and, I am sorry to say, ‘The Land of Lethargy and Gluttony’ is not on the list. I checked. But so what? Does it really matter if I can’t be goofy on Facebook?

Facebook is a business, and like any business, they have a right to run things they way they see fit. Hopefully they do it in a groovy and open-minded way but ultimately they can pretty much do what they want. Facebook belongs to Facebook. Not to you. Unless you bought shares, then Facebook is 0.00001% yours. And I am just using Facebook as the most cogent example, ALL internet sites operate in some fashion or another to restrict and regulate bodies.

‘Digital Geography’ means the flow of people, or our projected selves, through spaces made and re-made on the internet. Much like people migrate and set up shop in real-world physical spaces, so to do they move around and set up shop (quite literally) on the internet. Put another a way, digital geographies are where we go, what we do and who we interact with online.

Here’s another example of how bodies are regulated on the internet. Even on well-known-for-being-a-little-groovier dating site Okcupid, you have to select a gender. You get the standard two options. “Sorry transfolk, you’ll just have to pick a camp.” Certainly you’re allowed to join the site if you don’t fit either male or female label, you just can’t openly declare it in your gender category. Similarly, any site that requires a profile makes you comply with either normative gender category. Why does this matter? Why bother making people choose a gender label that doesn’t fit them?

One word: marketing. The internet, like the magic television box before it, exists for one reason and one reason only. To sell things. Advertisers can’t be bothered to wade through the myriad of fictional city names, non-normative genders or other things that are hard to crunch into a marketing plan. This information gets stored in big hypothetical digital packages (almost like a cloud, no?) and gets whipped around the world at the speed of light to people waiting to sell you stuff.

Now, to be perfectly clear, I love the internet. Who doesn’t? But we have been scarily complacent with our digital lives, falling far too easily into labels, definitions and profiles that are often less of who we actually are and more what someone else would like, or would at least like to sell to. But what does all of this have to do with geography?

To go back to my original example of ‘current cities,’ this morning I tried to change my current city to Cesnam, the name of the land that I have been living on and calling home for the past two years. Cesnam is “located in the heart of Musqueam’s Traditional and unceded Territory, is an ancient village and burial site of the Musqueam people, dating back at least 4,000 years.” [source] I have great respect for the people who have called Cesnam home for thousands of years and the history and culture that it represents. I wanted to in some small way acknowledge who’s land it is that I live on. But Facebook says that isn’t a legitimate name.

So here’s the regulation of bodies bit. By controlling what names certain sites can be called, Facebook and sites like it, effectively limit our digital geographies. The state does it through names, signs, flags, etc, and internet sites do it through digital representations of those things. This isn’t to say those things can’t be subverted, merely that when it comes to what you call yourself, your home, your friends and how you live ‘online,’ there are choices being made for you by others that, if left to defaults, threaten to take away the remaining autonomy we have online. Digital freedom is an important issue, especially for Canadians, and I urge all of us to take a hard look at how we’re being regulated online and find any possible way to ensure that we are who we want to be online.

Consider even the things we share, the news that gets through to us. What we share engulfs us in a geography of ‘likes,’ and this in turn becomes what gets suggested to us as what we should like in the future. Increasingly, the agency that we assume we have, actually lies in the hands of third parties, those who buy your information in order to sell products. At worst, it is used by governments to limit how people can interact; think Iranian, Russian and Chinese government crackdowns and spying on their citizenry- coming to an internet near you soon! We do still have control but we must not let the glossy ads and the constant torrent of memes distract us from what the internet is: a place for people to meet and talk freely and make some really cool things. For now.

Nick is a 4th year History major at UBC, as well as the CEO (and sole employee) of Unboring, a free online learning site. His 5th grade report card said: "Nick is a conscientious student but distracts his classmates." You can follow him on Twitter: @unboringlearn

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Nick is a 4th year History major at UBC, as well as the CEO (and sole employee) of Unboring, a free online learning site. His 5th grade report card said: "Nick is a conscientious student but distracts his classmates." You can follow him on Twitter: @unboringlearn