The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 1 (Spring 2018)

Tending the Digital Commons: A Small Ethics toward the Future

Alan Jacobs

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 1)

Facebook is unlikely to shut down tomorrow; nor is Twitter, or Instagram, or any other major social network. But they could. And it would be a good exercise to reflect on the fact that, should any or all of them disappear, no user would have any legal or practical recourse. I started thinking about this situation a few years ago when Tumblr—a platform devoted to a highly streamlined form of blogging, with an emphasis on easy reposting from other accounts—was bought by Yahoo. I was a heavy user of Tumblr at the time, having made thousands of posts, and given the propensity of large tech companies to buy smaller ones and then shut them down, I wondered what would become of my posts if Yahoo decided that Tumblr wasn’t worth the cost of maintaining it. I found that I was troubled by the possibility to a degree I hadn’t anticipated. It would be hyperbolic (not to say comical) to describe my Tumblr as a work of art, but I had put a lot of thought into what went on it, and sometimes I enjoyed looking through the sequence of posts, noticing how I had woven certain themes into that sequence, or feeling pleasure at having found interesting and unusual images. I felt a surge of proprietary affection—and anxiety.

Many personal computers have installed on them a small command-line tool called wget, which allows you to download webpages, or even whole websites, to your machine. I immediately downloaded the whole of my Tumblr to keep it safe—although if Tumblr did end up being shut down, I wasn’t sure how I would get all those posts back online. But that was a problem I could reserve for another day. In the meantime, I decided that I needed to talk with my students.

I was teaching a course at the time on reading, writing, and research in digital environments, so the question of who owns what we typically think of as “our” social media presence was a natural one. Yet I discovered that these students, all of whom were already interested in and fairly knowledgeable about computing, had not considered this peculiar situation—and were generally reluctant to: After all, what were the alternatives? Social media are about connecting with people, one of them commented, which means that you have to go where the people are. So, I replied, if that means that you have to give your personal data to tech companies that make money from it, that’s what you do? My students nodded, and shrugged. And how could I blame them? They thought as I had thought until about forty-eight hours earlier; and they acted as I continued to act, although we were all to various degrees uneasy about our actions.

In the years since I became fully aware of the vulnerability of what the Internet likes to call my “content,” I have made some changes in how I live online. But I have also become increasingly convinced that this vulnerability raises wide-ranging questions that ought to be of general concern. Those of us who live much of our lives online are not faced here simply with matters of intellectual property; we need to confront significant choices about the world we will hand down to those who come after us. The complexities of social media ought to prompt deep reflection on what we all owe to the future, and how we might discharge this debt.

To read the full article, please subscribe to our print ($30 yearly) or digital ($25 yearly) editions or purchase a copy at select Barnes & Noble bookstores.

Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University. His most recent book is How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (Commerce Books).

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.1 (Spring 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

Who We Are

Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

IASC Home | Research | Scholars | Events | Support

IASC Newsletter Signup

First Name Last Name Email Address
   

Follow Us . . . FacebookTwitter