wearing a digital burkha: practicing anonymity in the cyberworld & if privacy exists in the 21st century

no longer wishing to have a digital existence

Hi, y’all! So it is currently 4am and I can’t sleep. [I wrote this at 4am, posting this days later!] I haven’t been able to sleep well the past few days, which I should probably figure out. This post may seem like a rant, and that’s because it is. But this is just what I’ve been feeling lately! Hope y’all can hear me out. Once again, please ignore my grammar errors :)

A few days ago, I decided to no longer use social media. Okay, that’s actually a lie. I made the decision to no longer use my very public social media account and deleted all of my posts, which includes every image I have ever taken of myself. However, I still use my private account where only a small amount of my closest friends has access.

Ever since I was 13 years old, I have posted every single passing thought that has ever entered my brain, how I’ve spent my day, where I ate, and even some of my deepest and most vulnerable experiences to the internet. If I had a wonderful day with friends and family, I felt the need to post it, or else it didn’t really happen.

This all felt very normal and just another part of my daily life living in a high-tech digital age where an extension or caricature of ourselves that we carefully put together exists in a pixilated universe.

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To be frank, I was very lonely and didn’t have many friends growing up. I spent almost my entire girlhood indoors, writing my thoughts away in my journal, and only went outside to go grocery shopping with my mom. I guess you can say that I have spent my entire adolescence practicing isolation in preparation for a global pandemic. I was also a pretty weird kid, or at least according to my peers. As a 17-year-old, I was beyond angry with the world about how so much injustice was occurring on a daily basis but I didn’t know where I could scream. There was so much to be bitter about but I didn’t have anyone to talk to and my journal was no longer satisfying to me. So naturally, Instagram became my safe space. I simply viewed it as a dumping ground or a wasteland for my thoughts. But most importantly, it became a place for me to explore my sexuality, interest in the arts, and my identities.

Every day, I would talk about everything and anything. At first, it was simply just a place for me to ramble into the void and spill my thoughts. I was able to just open the app, say whatever was on my mind, close it, and then never had to think about it. We self-regulate our conversations with people based on their expressions, facial reactions, and body language. Perhaps we’re telling them a story about our bad tinder date, and if they look bored, we try our best to make it more interesting or finish it quickly. In person, there is no way of escaping each other’s presence without physically leaving the room and when we do decide to leave, we ponder around how to say it or when is the perfect time to exit. On the internet, there are only three options when it comes to cybernetic conversations— responding to the person’s message, leaving them on read, or simply never open their message at all.

I didn’t have to see the people that were reading my Instagram posts or wait to see their reactions on their faces. I was still safe indoors with the ability to slip in and out of the virtual world that I was building for myself. Slowly and surely, people had started to listen. Suddenly, magazines reached out to interview me and people began messaging me their stories and how they related to me. Eventually, I even got to be part of photoshoots and speak on panels as well.

At first, the sudden transformation of being ignored and looked down upon to being featured in major magazines was confusing, but I was over the moon with how much attention I was getting. People are actually listening to me, I thought to myself. However, the sudden change I was experiencing in the cyber world didn’t necessarily impact my life outside of social media. Till this day, whenever I express my same views that I am pouring on the internet in real life, I am met with annoyance and cruelty. However, on the internet, I am seen as “revolutionary” and “inspiring”.

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A few years have passed and more and more people are viewing my posts as a handful of them became viral. It felt like a new high, but it also felt strange. People were engaging with what I posted and consuming every story I pulled out of me, replying to my stories with “FACTS” and “thank you for sharing this! I feel the same way”. But their behavior in real life was entirely different. I was “thought-provoking” to them on the internet, but I had started to wonder if people were actually listening to me or just simply reading the words that appeared on their screen.

When having verbal conversations, we must be polite and listen, even if it is uninteresting to us or we might hurt their feelings and appear disrespectful. We have no choice but to naturally observe and pick apart each and every word. But on social media, with every new infographics and captions, we are allowed to skim through or sneakily scroll pass them without consequence, uncomfortable tensions, and feelings to look after. But by doing so, we give up the intimacy we have with ourselves of processing each thought spoken to us and the ability of critically thinking as we are constantly being stimulated with new information. We sacrifice our experience to sit with and mentally be present he content we are endlessly consuming.

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Whenever I had publicly talked about my views on the world or openly became vulnerable about my feelings, it use to feel liberating. As if I was releasing a burden that’s been stewing inside of me. But now, it almost feels exploitative. People were able to check-in and out of my feelings and thoughts whenever they pleased. But most of all, people that didn’t necessarily believe in what I was saying had started to flaunt my words to appear socially conscious.

When my Being Ugly is Liberating post went viral, I was pleased to see how positively people reacted. But eventually, I became disappointed when seeing people I knew in real life who had engraved desirability politics into their behavior shared my posts saying that they’ve been “thinking about this for a long time”. Although I am vastly different from the lonely 17-year-old I used to be, the desire I have for sharing my muse and rambles remains the same. I am simply just sharing my stories. I increasingly became uncomfortable with the idea that the public on social media had started to subdue my deepest thoughts and feelings to just mere “content”.

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A few months ago during Ramadan, I co-organized a virtual iftar during Ramadan for Arts & Democracy. The event appeared as a grid on my screen, each box with the performer’s face. However, one performer, Tarfia Faizullah, a powerful Bangladeshi poet, had her camera off. She started off her performance talking about how this Ramadan, she is navigating practicing spirituality by wearing a “digital burkha”. I was immediately confused. A digital burkha? I thought. Months later, this idea never once left my mind.

The idea of digital anonymity had intrigued me. To live in complete privacy, with no one ever knowing what I was doing or even looking like on a day-to-day basis. My initial response to this thought scared me. Wouldn’t it be scary if no one knew about how I spent my day? I wondered what the consequence would be if I didn’t post pictures of myself eating at a restaurant with friends and realize there was none— just a strange feeling that I had forgotten to do something and emptiness.

With every post, I am unconsciously giving up my privacy. But does privacy even exist in the 21st century? What does it even look like? The ultimate result of unintentionally surrendering my privacy subjects me to be constantly under surveillance by not only the state of our government, but by people with good and bad intentions. Of course, there is no way of detecting which person is viewing my “content” with the intent of positive, negative, or even a mix of both.

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While Instagram is an app where connections can be built, it is also a deeply flawed platform. It has birthed the influencer complex where people now have the ability to monetize their selfies to promote brands that continues the vicious systems of fast fashion. Although I have never accepted brand collaborations, I found myself purchasing more clothes from mainstream department stores because I was afraid that my pictures were starting to appear repetitive if I wore the same outfit over and over again. However, I am taking full accountability for my actions for purchasing clothes from H&M, etc., but I also believe social media plays an immoral and corporate role in fast fashion. Instagram also perpetrates their capitalistic and racist idealogy by creating an algorithm that supports influencers that tells their audience to buy consumer goods, while shadow-banning and erasing starving artists and sex workers (Source 1 | Source 2). Instagram is now another tool of consumerism, and I have come to realize that I have no desire to be a part of this system.

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However, I do believe my criticism for social media can co-exist with my deep appreciation for it. I think back to the 17-year-old lonely girl I was and how the internet has allowed me to navigate my own being and strengthen my voice. Social media was the first and probably the only place that continues to listen to me and allows me to share my writing with the world. It has taught me to not only take up space but how to use my words to demand attention. But most of all, it is also where I made kinship.

In the time of a global pandemic where a deadly virus awaits us, we have no choice but to use the internet as a place to remind ourselves of our existence and to hang on to our connections by a virtual thread. And for that, I am deeply grateful.

Social media is a strange and brand new phenomenon, and people are still trying to wrap their brains around it.

However, after spending nearly half of my life on the internet, I wish to see what lies outside the cyber world. I want to feel the power in existing without having anyone know what I ate today and have no clue what I’m thinking. I no longer want to have a digital facade that I carefully built where people I have never met perceives me. I want to explore anonymity— whatever that means in 2020.

I recommend going on this website (thanks to my friend, Veda, for sharing this with me!) to learn more about the complicated world of the internet.