Friday, November 19, 2010

Sex, Identity, and Social Space on the Web

A couple of days ago I posted about sexy photos publicly posted on Flickr. One thing I neglected to say is that most of these photos are posted under pseudonyms and a good many do not show a person’s face. They are thus more or less anonymous images. I have no way of knowing, of course, whether or to what extent these people share these images with people they know in real life. Sharing such images with people you know, however, IS quite different from sharing them with the anonymous public at large.

That’s what I want to explore a bit: what images we reveal on the web, under what circumstances, and to whom.

I note that this is a special case of playing different roles in different social ‘spaces.’ We do it all the time. We act one way at work, another way at the school board meeting, another way at the family reunion, and still another way in the privacy of our own homes. These various roles generally are not completely discontinuous.

The internet has given us another space in which we can create yet other roles. This general issue has, of course, been subject to considerable discussion and investigation over the last 15 to 20 years. Privacy has always been an issue and so has community. I take it as given that online communities need not be a means of escaping from life, but that they can function to extend and enhance our lives. I certainly don’t want to rehash all of these arguments here but that’s the general ball park I want to play in.

I want to look at three online spaces: 1) the Flickr space, which I previously contrasted with 2) the pornography space, and 3) a private online community. My discussion will be relatively quick and simple. I’m not going for detail or subtlety, just a quick characterization.

Flickr vs. Pornography Space

Let’s start with the first two. Flickr is a social networking space where photographs are the medium of interaction. I rather suspect it started as a place to display photographs and only later became a networking space – in fact, I suspect that it still is more of a display space than an interaction space. But it IS an interaction space, even if much of the interaction is relatively minimal – designating someone as a contact, friend, or family; picking a photo as a favorite; commenting on a photograph. There are also provisions for discussions associated with opt-in groups of photographs.

The existence of community functions thus distinguishes Flickr from the pornography space, which is not interactive except for live web cameras where one can chat, and make requests of, the performer. One does not “favorite” this or that photo or video, much less make comments about them. One does not interact with either the people in the photos and videos or with other customers. The models and performers are either anonymous or have pseudonyms.

Further, the pornography space seems relatively disconnected from the rest of the web. Pornography sites are densely linked to other pornography sites. Of course, they’re also linked to credit card sites, so people can pay for the goods. But they’re not densely linked to non-porn sites. And, of course, they’re accessible to search engines.

Flickr as a whole is part of the non-pornography web. I have no idea what percentage of the images on Flickr involve nudity or sexuality, but I’d think it’s a relatively small proportion, but whether that’s less than 10%, 1%, or even less, I don’t know. Flickr is well-known and highly visible in a way that none of the pornography sites are and Flickr images in general appear all over the web. All of the photographs on the my blog, for example, are from my Flickr site, and I’m only one of many people who use Flickr in this way.

I rather imagine, however, that the sexual images are not as likely to be used in this way. Most of them, as I’ve indicated, are posted anonymously, and I would assume that the people who do that are not going to link them to public blogs or other sites where they use their real names. These images are not as densely attached to the rest of the web as non-sexual images are, nor are they as directly associated with real life people. They are thus somewhat separated from the rest of the web.

But they are, nonetheless, open to a community in a way that the images in pornography-space are not. People can and do post comments about the images and people can and do make notes about details in the images themselves (as I explained in my previous post). The people who post these images seem to be looking for some implicit or tacit validation of their bodies and / or their actions. In some cases, such as the photo I discussed in that post, the desire for communal validation is explicit. Independently of what photos they share with friends and family, the people who post these photos on Flickr are looking to an anonymous collectivity for acceptance.

The people who visit pornography sites aren’t doing that – though some of the models and performers may be doing so. They reveal nothing of themselves to anyone – except to spies looking at internet traffic.

A Private Virtual Community

Now let’s consider a third case, a private virtual community. This community is not about sexuality – though there is a place for sexual discussion in the community. Rather, the community is about whatever its members want to discuss: current events, of course, sports, culture, history, science, business, whatever. And whatever includes sex.

While the privacy of the community is not a big deal, I’m not going to give the name here because I’ve not vetted this article within the community. The privacy of this community, however, is not about keeping it secret from the rest of the world. Rather, it’s a way of maintaining standards within the community. People who aren’t civil will be kicked out. Consequently, it’s a congenial place to hang out. Further, people go by their real names and sometimes even interact with one another outside the virtual world.

Though I’ve been in this community for a decade or more, it’s only recently that I’ve looked at any of the sexual discussion. I’ve done that because my exploration of Flickr made me curious about other sexual regions on the web.

With that in mind, I’ve got two observations about area designated for sexual discussion. One, there is a discussion thread where people are invited to post ‘tasteful,’ but sexy, photos of themselves. Some have done so. These photos aren’t nearly as revealing as the photos on Flickr.

Nor is that surprising. As I’ve said, this community is not a place where one lives through a pseudonym or avatar. You are you. And it is precisely because people DO know one another, somewhat, that they are more discrete about revealing their bodies through pictures. Within this space affirmation – or criticism – is not anonymous.

The second observation is that there is another thread where people are invited to discuss their sex lives and fantasies in complete freedom. This area is set up to be completely anonymous. No names, not even pseudonyms, are associated with the posts. There’s quite a bit of discussion here.

One thing this last kind of discussion allows, despite the anonymity, is discovery. You learn about other people’s sex lives and fantasies. Aand you may learn that your own – life and / or fantasy – isn’t so strange as you may have thought.

Obvious and Mysterious

All of this seems at once obvious and strange and mysterious. Obviously, we are guarded about our sexuality –what out bodies look like, especially the strategic bits, what we do, what we fantasize about. These three spaces – the pornography web, Flickr, and the private community – all preserve people’s . . . what? privacy? identity? dignity? But they do it in different ways according to the ‘nature’ of the space and how it is linked to real life identities.

And yet it is mysterious as well. At least I find it so. Why?

Why are we so guarded?

Mind you, when I ask that question, I’m not trying to imply that we should throw caution to the winds and let it all hang out. Not at all. Not quite like that. At the same time I observe that our primate relatives know nothing of privacy as we know it – for that matter, the rules of privacy vary somewhat between cultures.

What is this privacy and where does it come from? What is sexual shame?

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