Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Dark Side of Public Discourse and the Internet

This is a very broad topic and some smart person could probably do a doctoral thesis on this subject. The internet is an amazing technological gift and I don't think anyone envisioned the sort of potential it had when in its fledgling state. The ability to connect people from all over the world in real-time has unlocked an unprecedented global community. 

It's facilitated the Arab Spring, which the jury is still out on whether that is going to turn out to be a good thing or a bad thing. We've seen a young woman (Justine Sacco) vilified for making an off-color tweet in a poor attempt at humor that cost her job and ruined her reputation. We've seen young people commit suicide because of cyber-bullying. Harassment and death threats are rampant. And what is turning into a horrible custom--people jumping on the bandwagon of something they have very little knowledge of and creating a mob mentality. All of these things have happened and are happening, and it's sickening. Gamergate, Puppygate, leftwing vs. rightwing politics, I don't even want to get started on the details, but these things impinge on my daily visit to the web. News spreads at a viral pace now and people don't bother to take the time to see if things are true or not, they just take at gospel because everyone else says it's horrible. It must be bad if so many people say it is. It's as if a "journalist" from a gossip magazine is running the internet.

Why is it we want to believe the worst in everyone? The corporate world is not immune either (Examples of Social Media Crisis.)

And here is the worst part. If you speak out against something you are inviting the hordes to your doorstep. In some cases, literally. I'm hesitant to take a stand on any issue now. Who needs that kind of drama in their life? I know I don't, but I do think about stuff, and want to take a stand on things I feel strongly about without being singled out as the target du jour. Free speech should mean we all get to have a say, and be able to do it in a civil manner.

I don't know how we fix it. This age of free speech is different than any other time, because the reach is nearly instantaneous and global. My old roommate used to say, "Why can't everyone just be cool?" What is it about being insulated by your keyboard that gives people carte blanche to be A-holes? It's a little like road rage. It's a lot like pitchforks and torches and burning people at the stake, or a lynch mob--the worst type of social justice with no trial.

We need a new age of civility, social rules for the internet. I would rather see people chastised for breaking etiquette when he or she is being an A-hole, but not death threats, simple peer pressure to do better, that it's not acceptable behavior. I like what Chuck Wendig says about trying to be your best self on social media. I would love to see us be nice to each other, all the time, everywhere. I wish every person could be treated equally, male or female, gay or straight, black or white or whatever, all the time.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps, but I get the feeling we are on the cusp of something big. I don't know if it's going to be a good thing or a bad thing. I'm reminded of the first age of public discourse back in fourth century Athens, where orators were pleading with the public in courts and public events, to change the course of politics in their day. But that is nothing compared to the way disinformation flies around the world at the speed of light today. We can do so much with the connectivity we have now, but that could mean wonderful things or horrible things. This new age of communication is just beginning, and who knows how it will mutate as it matures. We do have the power of choice. We can chose to stand up for niceness. Or we can pile on.


Here's hoping niceness prevails.

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