Social Networking on the Dark Web

If someone says “Dark Web,” the first thing to come to mind might be drugs. Or guns. Or hitmen for hire. Or worse, child pornography. Indeed, we are in yet another Internet moral panic, this time about mysterious Web sites that cannot be accessed with a standard browser, sites that have bizarre URLs such as http://7vrl523532rjjznj.onion/ and http://anoncoin.i2p. Many news outlets, especially in the UK, have lurid stories of depraved activities that exist just beyond your browser’s reach, accessible only to those so paranoid as to have Tor or the i2p router installed on their computers. This anonymous, encrypted realm of the Internet brings out the worst in users, at least according to the news.

So it might be odd to see that social networking has come to the Dark Web. As I explore in a paper that will appear in New Media and Society (you can get a pre-edited version here), it’s oversimplifying things to say the Dark Web is solely comprised of taboo activities. Indeed, social networking – that is, friending, liking, micro-blogging, and persona-building – is thriving on the Dark Web in the form of the Dark Web Social Network (DWSN), a .onion hidden service that is only accessible to Tor-equipped browsers. My paper is an early exploration of that site, drawing on interviews with site admins and members and participant observation.

What happens on the DWSN is what I would call, following the work of Foucauldian scholar Colin Koopman, an experiment in power/freedom. I see this experiment as tied into two main historical and cultural contexts.

First of all, the DWSN has emerged in the midst of a dominant media ideology that holds that the Dark Web is a space solely dedicated to all the taboo and illegal activities I described above: namely, drug and gun sales, hiring someone to kill an enemy, or child porn. The news reports that describe the Dark Web implicitly (and even sometimes explicitly) call for police to “clean up” these practices. However, many of the same news and magazine stories on the Dark Web also note that .onion sites are useful for activists and journalists who operate under state surveillance. Thus, the Dark Web Social Network arises in a media ideology that presents the Dark Web as caught in a reciprocal and incompatible power/freedom assemblage. This is a complex mix of power and freedom – i.e., a mix of the call for a specific form of police power to bring light to the Dark Web and the repeated valorization of a liberal freedom of speech.

Secondly, the DWSN is a social networking site; it deploys the elements of that genre of online interaction. This means that there are affordances: if you use the DWSN, you can build a profile, post an avatar, friend people, like posts, write blog posts, and share media. However, there are also constraints: it is centralized, with admins holding onto the codebase and data, structuring the site to privilege certain actions over others. All of this is complicated by the fact that the form of social networking that one is expected in engage in on the DWSN is anonymous social networking, a far cry from the obsession with real-world identity we see on a site like Facebook.

This second historical thread – the genre of social networking – interacts with the first in that mixing anonymity and social media infrastructure results in a new formulation of power/freedom that is specific to the DWSN and opposes it to both the moral panic about the Dark Web and the ubiquitous surveillance found in sites like Facebook. Admins in the site enjoy anonymous and centralized power over site activities – mirroring the centralized power of Facebook. However, they use this power to shape the culture of the site to prevent the taboo Dark Web activities reported in the news. Moreover, they encourage site users to take advantage of anonymity to discuss and debate illegal and taboo topics.

The paper thus complicates a lot of the common ideas about the Dark Web by focusing on this highly complex social networking site, seeing how it relates to the historical conditions it finds itself in and how it negotiates the tensions of social networking on the Dark Web. As always, I’d love to hear your feedback.