[This post was originally sent as an email newsletter to our Digital Detox participants.]

Written by Dr. Sarah Lohnes Watulak, Director of Digital Pedagogy and Media, and Dr. Amy Collier, Associate Provost for Digital Learning

“It’s not just about how many people have access to the Internet, but whether that access is safe and meaningful for all of us.” – Mozilla, Internet Health Report 2018

“…if we just say ‘anyone is welcome’ and assume everyone feels equally welcome – we aren’t doing our job…it is insufficient to just open up an invitation.” – Maha Bali, Reproducing Marginality

In the early days of Web 2.0, as the technologies of web publishing (think blogs) became easier to use, many lauded the Internet’s potential to be a democratizing space where all voices would be heard (e.g., Shirky, 2008). Today, it has become clear that the Internet reproduces, and in many cases amplifies, inequality. For example, according to Mozilla’s 2018 Internet Health Report, “in every region of the world, except in the Americas, men outnumber women online.” In many countries, women are excluded from life online, with consequences for their participation in social, economic, and political processes and opportunities. In the United States, people with a disability are also less likely to go online (Fox, 2011). Finally, the Pew Research Center reported that in 2017, while 41% of American adults over the age of 18 have experienced online harassment, women and blacks faced more and more intense harassment than other categories of Internet users; LGBTQ youth also experience more harassment than their non-LGBTQ peers (GLSEN, 2013).

We must realize that the web is not a welcoming place for large numbers of marginalized people.
To understand why and how this happens, we need to interrogate the power dynamics that are produced and reproduced online. Who are the gatekeepers? Who gets to say who is welcome online, and who is not? Whose voices are privileged online? What are the systemic ways in which people are excluded from digital spaces? Whose labor and participation in digital spaces is made invisible (Watters, 2018)? What are the consequences of being excluded from digital spaces? 

There are many scholarly traditions and frameworks that provide tools to think with to confront these issues. Digital sociology, Internet studies, communication and media studies, feminist theory, queer theory, critical race theory, to name just a few. It’s impossible to unpack all of these in the space of a few paragraphs, but it seems important to start with confronting the still-persistent myth that our online and offline selves are somehow radically separate. Communication and media scholars have come to agree that for most of us, our online and offline selves and lives are closely intertwined. Alice Marwick and danah boyd call this “context collapse,” which Apryl Williams describes as occurring when “our on- and offline lives merge to create an inseparable space for identity negotiation” (2017, pp. 275-6). In other words, the social identities – the selves – that we enact in offline spaces are also the ones we bring to our online spaces. In a similar vein, Jessie Daniels notes that “our embodied selves are often the reason we are targeted for abuse and harassment online” (2017, p. 335). 
Starting from this point of understanding, what can we do to confront and disrupt oppressive power dynamics that operate in online spaces, in order to help to create an Internet that comes closer to the ideal of an inclusive, open, welcoming space for all? In Digital Sociologies, Tressie McMillan Cottom reminds us of the need to attend to “the various intersections of privilege, access, and power that operate online and offline simultaneously, and which can also be mutually constitutive” (2017, p. 214). To that end, we offer a few suggestions below, as small moves that address both online and offline opportunities for inclusion.

Take Action

Online Abuse 101 – Learn how to identify forms of online abuse
Practice noticing who is in your digital spaces and who is not

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