There’s been a spate of recent bad news about online activity. I have a sense that online behaviour has worsened recently: one person I was talking to thinks the last few months, I think it’s been a downward trend over at least the last two years, with an acceleration after last year’s Arab Spring and its valorisation of Twitter.
Being able to read, write, comment, and discuss online is a good thing. For free and freely. Within the usual limits of social interaction, courtesy, care for others, respect, tolerance, politeness; all these virtues of humane civility that are associated with civilized humanity. This all seemed and I hope continues to seem marvellously utopian.
Ideal, yes. Idealised, over-idealistic: perhaps. In a perfect world, everyone would listen and read carefully, pay attention to others, think before they speak, only open their mouths when they had something to say, and spend more time listening (and thinking) than talking. Unfortunately that’s not the case. It’s never been the case. In two words: human nature.
“Open to all” means open to *all.* The mad, the bad, the stupid. The whole rainbow of humanity. That’s a rainbow that doesn’t just include glittery iridescent silvered turquoise (or whatever your favourite colour is, metaphorically or otherwise). Some humanity may be ideal, but most isn’t. And they’re all online. And some of “Them” are online a lot of the time, talking constantly, and talking across and through other people.
Some might say that changes in the quality of online content have become more obvious recently because more and more people are online, and this is a negative aspect of the democratization of the internet. Maybe it should be openly-accessible to all, for passive reading and consumption; but with a complex system of abilities to respond, write, and interact actively. That’s already the case in many places that do reviews and reviewing. Some have sophisticated systems of control with automatic recognition of spambots and trolls, plus human editing.
Not all do, and not all that successfully; there’s a lot of Web 3.0 monetisation going on, what with spamming, robot replying, buying and selling “followers” and “friends” and “likes,” guerrilla marketing, the artificial creation of fashions, self-promotion, and planted infomercial pseudo-factual advertising.
Something similar has been happening, worldwide, in the last two years in relation to politics: democratization and independent movements, particularly in the Middle East; this side of online fakery has been reported on in the better class of newspaper.
Fake discussion, to go with fake friendships, fake groups and networks, fake fake fake.
So: a lot of what’s now online is fake. A more or less elaborate fiction. This fact about the online world is scary, in a science fiction way. It’s funny. It may be ironic. It’s also got something to do with many people online getting messed up about fact/fiction, true/false, real/unreal distinctions. And that’s really messed up, in a serious psychological mess way.
People behave worse online than they do in real life with real people, rather than better. As discussed on here before: the sensible thing to do is to behave better. When the physical husk of you is dead and gone and scattered to the four winds, what remains: an essence of you as expressed in words and deeds, remembered by others, immortalized in some creations. What you say online, for one.
We’ve also had some looks into how people behave worse online, over the last few days.
Why do people behave worse online?
A small proportion of the population are familiar and comfortable with writing and discussing, working regularly with distinctions between fact and non-fact fiction, distinctions between evidence + argument and opinion, rhetoric, the literal vs. the figurative, abstraction, complicated utterance, satire. That part of the population, and their familiarity with these uses of language, is not a new element of the internet age; they’ve been around since Socrates first started a conversation with a stranger in the market-place (and before, let’s be fair). Many such people can deal with reading and writing online just fine. (Some can’t and don’t; various other factors can intervene, like Luddism.)
These literate sorts of people have been amongst the earliest adopters of electronic text and, politically, behind an opening-up of the online world to all. Backed by the very old idea that information is free: that is should be free (rather than for money), accessible to everyone (rather than restricted to a selected few), and that information itself is free, independent, its own thing: not someone else’s property, not enslaved, not controlled. Perhaps even uncontrollable and wild: you get that sense with two kinds of information, “imagination” and “ideas.”
Other people could benefit from being able to read and write online: just as they could and did when education was opened up, very recently even in the “first world,” to the whole population. Not just the preserve of the male, the white, the rich, and the clever, educated to a high level. No: education was opened up and, more radical still, made compulsory (up to at least a certain level) for all. Everyone should be able to read and write. To open the doors to free access to information, which at that time was in writing. Those literary skills, accompanied by other educational bells and whistles, should also help with preparing everyone for “betterment.”
“Betterment” isn’t just selfish self-expression, fulfilling potential, “being the best you can be,” “doing well for yourself,” and simplistic markers of success. It’s also being a good person: morally, ethically, and politically. Morally: with thought, consideration of consequences, well-formulated decisions, the development of good judgement, being critical and criticising, asking questions, and pursuing the good and the truth. Ethically: especially given the rise of industrialization and greater population density: when people are packed tightly together in close proximity, the tendencies are either to turn to inhuman thugs, or to remain human (and alive) with greater regulation, including self-regulation. Politically: with the move, from the later 19th century onwards, towards universal suffrage, for which good and responsible citizenship is essential.
Pull the three together—the moral, the ethical, the political—and the result is an idealistic Knowledge Society. Not that ugly misshapen thing bounced around over the last few years, the “knowledge economy”; but with more in common with the educational and socio-political ideals of Ruskin and Morris, the early periods of the League of Nations, the European Union (back to Coal & Steel Community days); and with the older Republic of Letters, the ideas and ideology behind the Encyclopédie, and many a literary Utopia.
One might think that expanding universal access to the online world would be an analogous situation.
The ethics and politics fit. The ideas of rights and freedoms are expressed with ever-increasing frequency. Responsibilities, duties, duties of care, and the more civil and civilized aspects of citizenship too; though with little emphasis. They involve work and, well, that whole responsibility business; so they’re unpopular. And you don’t do them because there’s no obvious reason to be a good citizen (in a vicious circle, because you’ve not been taught about good citizenship), because you don’t do things because there might be a reason for doing them (because your limited education hasn’t included reasoning), and because it’s not compulsory (the only non-selfish non-appetitive motivation you comprehend). Not just uneducated, but not a rational being who thinks and decides, and maybe less a person than are many non-humans.
There is your who of online misbehaviour today: the irresponsible, feckless, careless, and lazy.
The why: because they are ignorant. They may also be the innocent.
An answer: education education education. With apologies for being idealistic and doubtless falling into all the old errors of those who thought that giving everyone equal opportunities was the best thing ever.
At the moment, there’s a mixture of self-regulation, deregulation, super-level absolute control, and no compulsory classes in good e-citizenship. These classes do exist: I’ve seen them advertised, often as non-credit community college and university courses, or through public libraries. But they’re options. If this online world is really to last, it needs to be treated right. To be treated as being as important as the offline world: individual morals; the ethics of social interactions; politics, or, the interpersonal writ large, groups , communities, and networks. That means rules and teaching and learning.
Related to the start of problem 3 above. A small portion of the population are highly literate: whether or not formally highly educated, perhaps literary, but in any case people who read and write and think a lot as part of their work and lives. Another part of the population read a lot (books, comics, newspapers, films, TV series) as part of their everyday lives, outside work. They should also be considered literate. Both groups share a capacity to engage with material in an attentive way, caring about it, over a long period per item, and over a long period altogether (ex. watching The Simpsons). They exhibit characteristics of “geekiness” and “nerdiness,” sometimes to an obsessive degree.
Those two groups should be distinguished from a third: the majority of the population who don’t read. Nope. No reading in any shape or form. They might watch TV occasionally, or read part of the Daily Fail or similar from time to time, but not for long, not attentively, and not in the same “I care and/as it matters” way.
All of these people talk. The third group talks the most, and that’s their main means of communication.
Problem with the internet: when people whose usual means of communication is speech, used in short bursts, with a short attention-span… when these people turn speaking into writing. And talk online as though they were talking in real life; not like an abbreviated form of writing.
I’m not even going to go into other subgroups in the majority of the population: the xenophobia of all sorts, just starting with racism and nationalism and homophobia; religious nutters; sexist pigs; sadists; and the rest. Like I said, I’m not going into that. It makes me gag to think about it, and to remind myself that these are human beings like everyone else, with votes and so on. I don’t want to make others gag too. That’s cruel and unnecessary.
If the internet were split into two parts, the short-form and the long-form, all might be well. But everyone can go everywhere, and online writing is in all shapes and forms, including many innovative creative hybrids and other novelties.
I blame text messages. That was the key communicative stage between virtual (telephone) speech and writing. Because mobile ‘phones had texting way before the rise of the smartphone, texting is associated with the object that is a ‘phone and with the activity of chatting directly on the ‘phone, and the telephone is in turn a direct descendant of having an actual real live chat with another actual real live human being in the same place in the real world. Rather than as a form of virtual communication, in the same category as online calls (Skype, Google, etc.), and associated with a computer-like device, from tablets to their ancestor the fixed desktop machine.
So much for the problems. We’ve already got one solution on the table: education. Some more follow.
I like most online forms of communication. I love reading, read indiscriminately, am insatiably curious about other people and what makes them tick (hence why I also read a lot of novels and suchlike), will generally find something interesting and positive anywhere, and it takes a long time before I give up on a piece of writing as having absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I like Twitter the least, and over this year I’ve moved to actively disliking it, but I can see some reason and use for it. In an ideal world, there would be:
- a restricted-access area, where anyone could read/listen passively but only bona fide professional comedians could write/speak actively: this could be extended to other people of wit by submitting a portfolio, sitting an examination, and passing a probation period
- an “open to all” area, as the 140-character form is well-suited to the large majority of the population whose main form of discourse is that sort of short form
The one good thing about the increase in online-world problems? It might draw attention to professional writers, readers, and editors. And create employment for them. Not just ghost-writers for celebs’ Twitter feeds and overworked underpaid moderators, as even a BBC News Technology commentator suggests, it’s that obvious: but a higher-powered (and higher-regarded) version, of people whose job it is to coldly filter all the junk, dross, scum, and horror that is all too often The General Public’s Comments. Literate and literary people are socially and politically necessary. “Unemployable” Arts graduates: your
country world needs you. World: you (we) need these people, and we need them in new super-moderator jobs. Many of them are online, commenting; many of them become embittered with becoming the new underclass, and risk turning troll. It doesn’t need to be that way: these are the very people who can save the Internet. An analogy: hackers who go over to the non-dark side.
Please, with very few exceptions, no more Twitterati media-type commentary. Yes, spotting how hyper and meta it all is is all very clever, the first time someone spots that. But it’s a short-lived joke. No, this isn’t a fashionable trend to “spot” or “be ahead of.” This is life, human existence, the world we live in. It’s too important for talk about the internet to be left to people like that, or to (out of touch, techno-ignorant, balding white middle-aged male, etc.) politicians to enact knee-jerk reactive legislation, looking to the next polls, without thought as to consequences beyond the end of their term. “Short-form” people.
We need proper planning, for the long term, by “long-form” people. People who think. People who think about other people. People who also happen to know the Internet, and who know that what happens on the Internet happens to people, and that people matter. People who care. Wise Sensible Elders: Tim Berners-Lee; a council of old ladies, and drag queens, and anyone else who is an honorary old lady in spirit; stern retired librarians and school-teachers; and people whose job is the primary care of other people (especially nurses).
We need rules. And the rule of law, through an independent judiciary. Old-fashioned separation of powers, checks and balances, and toleration for minority rights. But backed up by and resting on the rule of law. I say that as a self-confessed gynarchist; the two things are not incompatible: this is where anarchism is tougher, based as it is on a network of multilateral responsibilities and mutual respect. We’ve seen what happens with revolution without a precursor phase of slow and contemplative construction preceding it: compare the American to the French revolutions. We’re seeing what happens to revolution without first setting up any socio-political structure at all.
And please, more long-form writing online. The kind that requires listening, attention, thought, and time. The kind of slowing down we’ve talked about earlier.
The images above are from the fabulous xkcd: A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.