Bad Metaphors Digital Footprint

We like to think that our digital impressions are measurable and within our control. They aren’t

Full-text audio version of this essay.

BAD METAPHORS is an ongoing series that takes a critical look at the figures of speech that shuttle between technology and everyday life. Read the rest here.

“The choice is yours,” declares a chipper feminine narrator. She repeats this phrase after every question: Can your digital footprint contribute to your online reputation? Once you’ve shared something online, can you simply delete it if you so choose? The ominous music and dramatic sound effects imply high stakes. Choose correctly, or else.

These questions are scattered throughout an online course called “Digital Footprints,” developed by the nonprofit Internet Society (ISOC) to help internet users better “manage [their] digital identity.” The takeaway is clear: Reducing one’s digital footprint is a matter of making good choices. The course emphasizes personal responsibility, even as it explains how technology designs, social norms, and economic incentives challenge individual users’ ability to comprehend — let alone control — data flows.

For the past two decades, the digital footprint metaphor has been central to conversations about the information people generate when using the internet. It shows up in news articles, educational materials, and advice guides, especially when discussing technology and children. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term first appeared in a 1995 Philadelphia Inquirer article about the arrest of Kevin Mitnick for computer hacking: “He eventually helped trace digital footprints that led across cyberspace…” Since then, it has evolved into a more all-encompassing term for a person’s digital representation or identity.

I post something online — say, an image on Facebook. I drop it into the water. But once it’s there, I don’t have control

It’s no surprise that the digital footprint metaphor is so sticky. Literal footprints can be measured, tracked, and used as evidence of where someone has traveled. A related metaphor, that of the carbon footprint, regularly appears in environmental discussions to describe an individual’s impact on the natural world. Here, it connotes culpability — because these impressions can cause harm, reducing one’s footprint is a matter of duty. But the carbon footprint concept was popularized by BP as a marketing tactic to deflect responsibility for climate change mitigation away from oil companies (who directly drive climate change) and onto individuals (whose actions do little to alter climate change). Though not the brainchild of a PR firm, the digital footprint metaphor functions in much the same way.

The ISOC’s digital footprints course is just one of many educational initiatives that embrace the metaphor. A video from Common Sense Education warns children that their digital footprint can be “searched, copied, shared, broadcast, and is permanent.” Worksheets and guides from publishers like Scholastic and nonprofits like the Family Online Safety Institute and Netsafe needle children to cultivate a positive online presence. Checklists abound. The Australian state of Queensland identifies “The seven steps to a positive digital footprint,” while Wikipedia pares it back to three: “Research yourself,” “Think before posting,” and “Highlight attractive traits and qualities.” The breezy language and friendly animations sweeten an otherwise bitter implication: Digital footprints may ruin your future.

The ISOC course defines digital footprints as “the records and traces we leave behind us as we use the internet, every time we use the internet,” and warns that “internet users rarely have the information or understanding they need to make an informed decision” about the content they post and its implications. It differentiates between explicit footprints (what people post on social media, send via chat and email, or type into search engines) and implicit footprints (the IP addresses, device settings, and other metadata that systems extract from digital interactions), suggesting that people unwittingly develop their implicit footprints, but knowingly create their explicit ones. (Wikipedia’s digital footprint entry makes a similar case, using the terms “active” and “passive” digital footprint.) Discussions like this tend to focus on the explicit footprint, because these are the impressions we can ostensibly control, while downplaying or completely ignoring the impressions we can’t.

Calls to be careful about one’s digital footprint miss a crucial point: There is no opting out of one — we all have a digital footprint, whether we choose to make one or not. Furthermore, the term collapses the vast and diverse swaths of data generated through digital interactions into one entity, holding individuals personally responsible for its creation. This lulls people into a false sense of control over their digital representations and makes people feel guilty for not doing enough to manage their data. It removes attention from the networked and institutionally driven operations that largely shape digital impressions.

How can discourses about personal data flows move beyond individual responsibility toward more collective accountability? One avenue lies in questioning — and changing — the language used to discuss those data flows. In reality, the data we create are fragmented, often invisible, and relate to a range of actions and issues that go beyond the individual. We argue that the digital footprint, with its ingrained imagery of solid, unchangeable and controllable imprints, has run its course. To reflect this complexity, we propose that the “digital wake” — that is, the churn and ripple created as a boat moves through the water — might be a more fruitful, evocative, and politically useful metaphor for thinking about digital data flows. Moving away from the false agency implied by the footprint, the “wake” provides an avenue for investigating the complexity, politics, and interconnectedness of our lives with the internet.

Journalist Kashmir Hill recently wrote that digital footprints have enabled “a kind of modern sport: Find an outrageous piece of a person’s past that can be weaponized, put it on display for all to see and hope for the worst.” Hill was writing in response to the Associated Press’ firing of a 22-year-old journalist after the Stanford College Republicans unearthed social media posts supporting Palestinian activism that the journalist had written as a college student. Statements like these, while accurate, miss the fact that many people and organizations have a role in shaping a person’s digital identity, and they largely operate outside that person’s control. Friends post pictures after a night out, gig workers and customers rate each other in apps, trolls post personal information to harm others. The warning that parents and teachers so often utter to children — watch what you post or you might not get a job one day — came true for one young journalist, and she likely won’t be the last. But what’s the lesson here? That individuals shouldn’t post online about activism? That they shouldn’t use social media? Kashmir Hill, in another piece, wrote about her attempt to stop interacting with the Big Five internet giants — Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple — and called the experience “hell.”

An actual footprint has only one creator. But what the ISOC course calls the implicit footprint — IP addresses, location data, and other metadata that accompany the explicit footprint — is usually not something a person actively chooses to disclose, or creates on their own. Digital footprint discussions overlook how others contribute to a digital identity. In contrast, the digital wake describes a process of data and identity production that is necessarily co-created, diffuse, and interconnected. As we traverse like boats (or jetskis, or ferries) through the water of the internet, the wake is the impression left behind. The wake is the churn of data and metadata we create when engaging digitally; it radiates, dissipates and intersects with the wakes from other vessels. Our activity affects the dynamics of the water, as our journey is affected by the wakes of many other boats.

The digital footprint suggests that people have agency over their digital traces. The digital “wake” reflects the reality that identity, content, and data are co-created

In other domains, far from the ebbs and flows of data and digital traces, the wake has been a resonant metaphor for theorizing the past’s rippling and unpredictable impacts on the present. Scholar Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being investigates the different valences of the wake — “the track left on the water’s surface by a ship,” the state of wakefulness, the dead mourned and watched over. Sharpe describes how the present-day materiality of Black life is shaped and roiled by the ripples and afterlives of slavery. To be “in the wake,” says Sharpe, is “to occupy and to be occupied by the continuous and changing present of slavery’s as yet unresolved unfolding.” Sharpe describes the experience of living with, and through, the ongoing horror of the past, and finding strategies for care, joy, and mutuality within that tumultuous wake.

The metaphors deployed to describe the internet and its processes are, in comparison, notoriously awkward and incomplete. No phrase can hope to effectively analogize an entire ecosystem, but the emergence of new metaphors reflect the evolving public understanding of the internet. As academics, practitioners, and the popular press have struggled to articulate the novel and seemingly amorphous world of digital processes and big data, they’ve analogized roads, clouds, and (notably) tubes. Watery metaphors have long proved useful here. Researchers Tim Hwang and Karen Levy note the prevalence of the “flow” as a description of how data moves, citing the idea of a “Data Stream” as a key trope. These metaphoric flows are not only fluid, but massive — a force of nature. In their review of popular data metaphors and their political implications, scholars Luke Stark and Anna Lauren Hoffmann write: “From datalakes, rivers, and oceans to data floods, deluges, and tsunamis, these metaphors position data as something massive and volatile while also necessary to support human life.”

What these wet metaphors generally lack is the ability to assign agency, the ability to critique. “The rhetoric of free streams of flowing communication tends to obscure the politics and power relations behind digital and other information technologies” writes sociologist Deborah Lupton. The digital wake is a different kind of fluid metaphor: there’s something riding on top of it. The idea of the wake provides an opportunity to consider both the water and the boat — the internet and the people that engage with and are shaped by it. We can examine the impact of the boats (the users uploading images, making comments, leaving metadata), but also the physics of the water (that is — the structure, affordances, and ownership of digital spaces) and the interaction of different vessels. By describing a context in which boats affect the movement of the water, and the water’s movements affect the journey of other boats, the digital wake helps account for who does what, but also alludes to the unpredictable nature of the wake’s ripples and flows.

A digital footprint assumes we leave a purposeful impression that can be interpreted and clearly demarcated. The boundedness, and thus the measurability, is part of the appeal. The idea that we could track and quantify our digital traces is soothing, and gives rise to the theory that if only we had the right tools, we could all be sovereign owners of our digital impressions. Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter reinforce this notion, offering the option to “download your data” — really a small fraction of the data these companies collect about your activities — and internet thinkfluencers like Jaron Lanier claim that “you should get paid for your data.”

Measurability is a trap. It posits that if only we could measure things adequately, we could monetize, regulate, or control data extraction and flows. The digital wake metaphor acknowledges the impossibility of quantification. Instead, it proposes an environment in which social media posts diffuse into the stream of content; documents circulate in semi-permeable semi-public spaces; and emails, instant messages, and photos come and go. As we stir the waters, actively creating (or incidentally producing) data about ourselves and others, we seldom retain control or even awareness of it for long periods of time. We move forward, and our digital wake stretches out behind us, at first causing a churn, and then dissipating back into the digital waters as the ripples grow further away.

Unlike the digital footprint, which suggests that people have agency over their digital traces and online presence (my data, my digital history, my online identity), the digital wake reflects the reality that identity, content, and data are co-created. I post something online — say, an image on Facebook. I drop it into the water. But once it’s there, I don’t have control, really. Someone else might screenshot the photo, crop out some elements, and upload it to a Pinterest album. Someone else might take the cropped image, add text and collage in other elements, and turn it into a meme that circulates widely on Twitter and Reddit. The meme might popularize a phrase that enters the internet’s common parlance for a short time, to the extent that it’s mentioned on a news show. All this is the digital wake. The original action — the posting of a photo — was me. All the rest — the meme, the catchphrase, the news — happened in my wake, but I’m surely not the only one accountable.

An actual footprint has only one creator. But other metadata that accompany it are usually not something a person actively chooses to disclose or creates on their own

The digital wake metaphor ideally recognizes agency while acknowledging that in our current digital context, putting something online does not equate to being able to control its impacts or its spread. I have a role in creating my digital wake (I posted the photo), but it is not my wave. What’s more, the wave was formed in a specific context — the tide just so, the boat traveling at a certain velocity, a light wind — and that contributes to the shape and aftereffects of the wake. On the internet, this context is everything. We’re not posting into a vacuum or making our impression on unmarked sand. We’re responding to others, participating in trends, and contributing to discourse. Of course, our wake can cause damage, to ourselves or to others. But the wake cannot be ringfenced or thought of as discrete. As other people encounter the flotsam and jetsam that extend from my initial action, they are all on their own boating journeys, forming wakes and bobbing in the seaspray of a thousand million radiating waves.

In the example above — the action of taking and posting the photo — even my moment of “agency” is imbricated in systems of behavior and practices shaped by social and commercial forces online and offline. Facebook encourages me to share; my understanding of a “good image” is informed by my hours of Instagram-scrolling; and my phone itself produces a specific kind of image. There is no “IRL me” that deposits little nuggets of personality and documentation online, where it can be shared with my family or dredged up by my enemies. I’m formed with and through the internet, my online experience as formative as any hiking trip or sleepover or schoolroom lesson. In this sense, perhaps it’s slightly inaccurate to say that we’re the vessels traveling over the water, stirring it up with our passing. We’re of the water, shaped by it.

If water is the medium through which we travel and through which we shape our selves, it seems pertinent to ask: Who owns that water? Most of the spaces we float through online are privately owned, from the social media platforms where our posts and comments are scraped into user profiles and used to target ads, to the email servers and document management systems that shape the ways we communicate and collaborate. The internet is not a public good (despite the public dollars that contributed to its development and the continued pretense of social media as a “public square”), but rather a series of platforms and domains that are primarily owned and controlled by a small handful of corporations.

As Kashmir Hill found, attempting to opt out of the most shark-infested of the corporate-controlled waters is time-consuming, frustrating, and sometimes impossible. It’s also somewhat beside the point. When socializing entails texting and liking, when employment requires online applications and corporate email, when schooling occurs through Zoom and Google Classroom, generating digital information about oneself and one’s activities is not a choice. Deleting your social media accounts or attempting to divest from the Big Five is like trying to control your “digital footprint” — an individualized approach to a systemic issue. My friends can still share photos of me on Instagram, and data from my online activity still ripples across the corporate web, dredged and captured by the companies with rights to that piece of digital ocean.

I have a role in creating my digital wake (I posted the photo), but it is not my wave

To an extent, governments can make a difference in the way companies use the digital water, and even in the nature and ownership of the water, with well-designed regulation and legislation. But there are limits to this approach, as anyone following the rollout of GDPR requirements and implementation over the past five years could tell you. Rules are likely to vary across different parts of the internet, where different sets of national legislation bump into each other, making them harder to enforce (although the internet, like the ocean, makes a mockery of borders). Even when legislation is in place to limit the use of personal or aggregate data — whether that’s policing breaches of copyright, preventing the distribution of objectionable content, or forbidding the posting of private information — enforcing it is easier said than done; a bit like trying to control water with a net.

In the educational realm, digital literacy lessons designed around the digital wake would accept that living life nowadays means generating data. They would recognize that people exercise little control over that data, and they would refuse “choice” as the primary frame through which to understand it. Unexpected things happen to data all the time, and those things are rarely the data subject’s fault. The digital footprint metaphor tightly couples data to an individual’s identity and implies that the person is responsible for what happens to it. The digital wake loosens these bounds. Does something I posted decades ago reflect my current self? If someone pulls my information out of context and harms me with it, shouldn’t they be held accountable? If corporations structure the digital ocean, aren’t they responsible for keeping it safe?

Shifting conversations from the digital footprint toward the new metaphor of the digital wake will not on its own produce a culture of collective accountability. But changing the way we think provides a framework for imagining the material transformation necessary to move towards a more equitable, less extractive internet. Using the digital wake metaphor to illustrate digital flows might help us recognize the futility of continued calls to “think carefully before posting and sharing information.” It would be much more useful to build an understanding of the ecosystem in which information ripples, settles, and churns.

Priya C. Kumar is a writer and researcher who studies the datafication of family life. She is an assistant professor at the Pennsylvania State University’s College of Information Sciences and Technology.

Anna Pendergrast is a New Zealand-based writer and analyst. She is co-lead of ANTISTATIC, a research and communications group that focuses on issues of technology and the environment.

Kelly Pendergrast is a writer, researcher, and curator based in San Francisco. She works with ANTISTATIC on technology and environmental justice, and she writes about natures, visual culture, and laboring bodies.