An expert on online privacy and fanfiction communities responds to Julian K. Jarboe’s “The Only Innocent Man.”
I commonly start a lecture about online privacy by giving a room full of college students a task: In five minutes, who can find the most interesting thing about me on the internet?
Typically this exercise yields precisely what I intend—showcasing the variety of sources of information about all of us online. Someone once found the movie reviews I wrote for my college newspaper; a close family member’s obituary; my recipe for snickerdoodles that apparently once resulted in marriage proposals on Instagram. If it’s been a while since I’ve scrubbed it, my home address might appear on a public data website.
And one year, a student raised his hand and confidently announced, “Dr. Fiesler, I found your fanfiction!”
“You did not!” I scoffed as the color drained from my face, and I ran down the aisle to look over his shoulder at his laptop screen … where I am happy to report, he had uncovered a short story I’d published in 2007 under my real name. (I would link to it, except the fantasy humor publication appears to be gone from the internet now. You’ll just have to trust me when I tell you it was hilarious; it was about a man who inherited a sphinx who made him answer riddles to enter his own bathroom.) Not any of the hundreds of thousands of words of Star Trek and Harry Potter and Doctor Who fanfiction I’d shared on the internet during the first decade of the millennium.
When I read the opening lines of “The Only Innocent Man,” this experience came rushing back to me as I thought about all the reasons we share things online, and the potential danger to our privacy this poses even decades later. But conversations about the latter also tend to leave out the nuances of the former—especially how sharing things like stories online might not only help us, but also help other people.
A few years ago, my former Ph.D. advisee Brianna Dym (now at the University of Maine) interviewed LGBTQ+ people who write and share fanfiction online. The findings from this work are full of remarkable stories about how being part of this online community changed lives, especially during the process of coming out, and especially for people without access to offline support systems. She spoke to people who had never encountered stories about or from others who shared their sexual orientation or gender identity, or that reflected their own struggles, prior to coming across fanfiction. In turn, many of them began writing fanfiction precisely so that they could help others in the same way. And many of these stories, like the ones written by Jarboe’s protagonist Charlie, are wholesome; one participant described “resistance though joy” by continuing to write happy stories about a queer character who was killed off in a television show. And even though Charlie wasn’t writing stories about someone else’s characters, his stories too were offering a kind of resistance by describing a world in which “homophobia and transphobia existed vaguely, or in the past tense.”
However, particularly at the time when both the fictional Charlie and I were sharing stories online, writing about queer characters could have very real safety risks, which is one of the reasons why fanfiction communities developed strong privacy norms. However, these norms are not always respected by people outside the community. In fact, our research also found that many people in fandom have that same “acute anxiety” as Charlie about someone tracking down their stories, an anxiety that is exacerbated by the knowledge that Tumblr posts and fanfiction archives are technically “public,” which means that they’re typically considered fair game by researchers and journalists.
These kinds of concerns are also not limited to sharing fictional stories. Countless people share things about themselves online in order to give and receive social support, whether that be people going through gender transition, coping with trauma, or seeking information about a rare health condition—but this sharing often happens in spaces that are technically public. For example, years ago a computer science professor collected YouTube videos of people sharing their gender transitions as part of facial recognition research. One of the people featured in this dataset without her consent, whose image also appeared in scientific papers, shared her motivation in posting these videos online, echoing what we heard from fanfiction writers: “I wanted other trans people to see my transition. These types of transition montages were helpful to me, so I wanted to pay it forward.”
These online communities can literally save lives, but choosing to share information in a public place comes with the trade-off of privacy risks. Moreover, these risks are not always attached to situations so obvious as posting a personal story to Reddit; even signals such as patterns of social media “likes” can allow for the prediction of personal traits that we do not directly disclose. Jarboe’s story points to the potential for a computer system to know exactly what we need—which can be great, assuming that we’re OK with such a system knowing so much about us, and that it isn’t just used for ad targeting.
If we are to cultivate the potential for sharing content online that helps people, in both big and small ways, it is critical that we consider ethical practices for researchers and archivists, like those in Jarboe’s story, as well as user-generated content platforms. For example, researchers should be considering far more than “well, it’s public” when collecting and using online content. We should also consider models for control over our own content. For example, the fanfiction website Archive of Our Own has a very specific feature called “orphaning” where a user can erase all records of their own identity from a story but leave it online as written by an anonymous author; one of the early designers of the website described this feature to me as being a way to help protect people who wanted to “wipe out their fannish identity in an instant” without taking something away from the community.
Occasionally I still get comments on fanfiction that I wrote 15 years ago, and I’m glad that it’s still there for someone else to enjoy. And I want there to be even more people like Charlie who are willing to give so much of themselves to strangers on the internet. I just hope that our privacy norms can keep up— and hey, if you come across someone’s teenage LiveJournal from 2002, keep it to yourself, OK?
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.