Social Networking in the Dark

A new article on anonymous social networking demonstrates the potential and contradictions of resisting online surveillance in a Facebook-ed world.

If you’ve heard about the “dark web” on the news, you’ve likely heard mostly about its illegal use: sharing child pornography, selling drugs and weapons, hiring hitmen. Or perhaps you’ve heard about the ways that it is begin used to protect free speech, for example how journalists are using it as a way to protect sources. In his new article in the journal New Media and Society, Dr. Robert Gehl uncovers another face of this semi-mysterious online world: social networking.

For ten months, Gehl (a colleague of mine at the University of Utah) conducted an ethnography of a social networking site on the “dark web,” that part of the internet that cannot be accessed with regular browsers, and which is designed to protect user anonymity. The site, which Gehl gives the pseudonym DWSN (Dark Web Social Network), works much like Facebook or MySpace or other social networking sites — people develop profiles, link up with friends, discuss various personal interests. The main difference is that they are using specialized software (Tor) which anonymizes all the users. The users do not know who runs the site, and the site owners do not know who the users are in the “real world.”

If you’re like me, and you haven’t heard much at all about the dark web, this is first and foremost a fascinating look at a little-known online culture. At the same time, it points to the limits and dangers of social media activism in a time of increasing surveillance and commodification of our online identities. Gehl notes, for instance, that Facebook has patented a system for handing over our info to governments. The DWSN is a space of active resistance to state surveillance and control, so adamantly opposed to personal identification that they did not even want to know who Dr. Gehl was or where he worked when he began his ethnography.

Dark web social networking potentially holds great promise for organizing, though not in the same way as traditional social networking. Twitter is useful because of its broad reach and ability to create trends. DWSN is potentially powerful as a way to foster communities of resistance and to plan direct action without being monitored. Gehl does not report any activism emerging from DWSN, but does show how it serves as a space for discussion of political issues, particularly relating to the internet.

Gehl’s account is neither idealizing nor trashing the dark web and its potential as a space for social networking. Framing his analysis with the concepts of “freedom” and “power,” he shows how complex this phenomenon is. In some ways DWSN is resisting power — countering government and corporate surveillance in the name of freedom. In other ways it is about reasserting power in a new space. Like Facebook, DWSN is centralized and heavily controlled by the site’s moderators. This is vital to the ability of DWSN to remain free of child pornography, which is a core value of the site.

Ultimately, the DWSN is as full of tensions and contradictions as any community. Its members want to create alternatives to Facebook and Twitter, but they do not want to attract too many people because it will disturb their carefully-crafted online culture and tech-elite status. Still, there is much we can learn. Gehl ends his article this way:

The quiet, hidden, clear web-leery DWSN is just such an experiment, one that its members and administrators are always tinkering with—sometimes well, sometimes poorly, and never with guarantees. As Wendy Chun (2006) argues in Control and Freedom, “From our position of vulnerability, we must seize a freedom that always moves beyond our control, that carries with it no guarantees but rather constantly engenders decisions to be made and actions to perform” (p. 30)