There is the hope that the internet might help us along the path towards a society of solidarity and enlightenment: we share our knowledge, make it available to others and have access to other people’s knowledge in no time at all. –Swiss Federal Councillor, Moritz Leuenberger, addressing the 13th Session of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD), Geneva, 17 May 2010
A few days ago a woman who has been among my dearest friends since the third grade posted a note to her facebook page encouraging folks to reconnect with one another face to face. She attributed the proliferation of hate speech in social media to the ease with which some people unleash their lesser selves while hiding behind the presumed anonymity of their computer screens.
There are indisputably a good many people online who are not as they are in person. My ex husband certainly was (and likely still is) among them. When Ex finally confessed the details of his perverse online life, he had a tough time understanding why I was so upset. “They’re just blips on a screen—not really people.” He couldn’t or perhaps didn’t want to believe that somewhere at the other end of all those digital packets of data, on the other side of another screen, there was another set of fingers typing away, there was a set of eyes reading or watching, and behind them—there was another soul (even if it was one who was willing to take off her clothes in front of a webcam).
Many folks create online personae to protect their privacy. Some do so in order to escape the difficult or mundane realities of their own lives. Others use anonymity in order to avoid responsibility for their own actions, to avoid retribution. In his address of May 17, 2010, Swiss Federal Councillor Moritz Leuenberge also said of the internet:
There are… dark basements, dangerous dungeons, forbidden cells: our internet-house is also a lure, a debt trap. It is a red light district with weak youth protection. It is a gambling den and an addictive substance. It is a public pillory and a place that threatens our privacy, a house with rooms used for spying and cheating, in which political control and repression are practised.
Who would want to be their real self in such places?
Many privacy advocates encourage individuals but especially teens to use pseudonyms for their social media accounts. Then, when college application and job search times come around, profiles reveal nothing. The kids will be (or at least seem) squeaky clean. Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg has pretty well revealed that he believes privacy is archaic and outmoded in this blog-it-all, live online and out-loud modern world. Last week, an IM exchange between Zuckerberg and a friend surfaced dating from the days when facebook was still wet behind the ears. In it, ‘Zuck’ calls facebook users “dumb f[*]cks” for having trusted him. I increasingly concur. We might all just be “dumb f[*]cks” for having trusted ol’ Zuck with our personal information and also with following through on his own word regarding the moderation of content.
- We must all work together to combat internet crime, especially the abuse of children, young people and women, as well as the misuse of identities and profiles for criminal purposes.
- We should also aim to establish a framework geared towards human dignity and human rights. If we fail to do this, we are accepting the fact that the internet is abused for the suppression of free will.
A citizen’s privacy must also be safeguarded in the internet. That falls under the protection of human rights and human dignity, too –Swiss Federal Councillor Moritz Leuenberger again, in the same address.
Readers, I never signed on with Ex’s blips-on-a-screen theory and perhaps because of it, I experience social media in exactly the opposite way. Indeed, I have even fallen in love both through and with social media. Having an online life has brought me closer to many people in my offline life. I know what is happening in the lives of those I run into on the sidewalk, the playground, or the churchyard as a result of status updates and tweets. When I see them, I can ask after the health of the ill relative, wish a happy birthday, or offer food to a new mother. Many people who knew our family casually have stumbled across the blog and now know more about our lives than they ever wanted to know about anyone’s. As a result, our family is getting more support and encouragement. Friends have become more involved in our lives, people know us better and they know us for real.
I also have a growing community of people who have come into my life exclusively through social media. We have connected over common interests and we like the way one another think (mostly). In creating an online social space where people could come together to oppose incivility and violence, and to reaffirm human dignity, I have forged some tremendously promising relationships with a good many individuals from all over the place. We are from different backgrounds, faiths, and even different political persuasions. (It’s true, Readers, I have a growing number of friends who are considerably more conservative than I will ever be, but we can celebrate what we have in common, what we can agree on, which is often the Lion’s share of the meat.) We inform and we inspire one another.
I am creating a positive, nourishing, and lively social media, “node,” if we want to think about the evolving architecture of the internet as the four NYU students who are creating Diaspora have proposed. I find their vision a compelling one and wish them well enough to have made a contribution to their effort. My friends and I have tried to get in touch with them to pose some very pointed and specific questions about their willingness to incorporate an ethic of nonviolence and civility. You might want to consider making a contribution, too—especially if these four would-be architects will add a provision for content accountability to their blueprint, such that as users, we aren’t subjected to flaming bags of excrement left anonymously on our front doorsteps.
The architecture of the internet is rapidly changing. A handful of nerds in dorm rooms and dusty apartments can reshape the whole shebang in a matter of months with bright ideas, hard work, and enough money to buy a few months worth of ramen noodles. We, the new users, want a voice.
I’m going to peek into my crystal ball and tell you that social media will continue to grow to become the most powerful catalyst for change the world has yet seen. It’s called Social Media and it’s advantage is in linking people together to build relationships, relationships that help people smooth out their differences and get things done. I am well aware that social media can undermine relationships as well and I readily admit that I am sometimes torn asunder when my kids just want the lid to close on my laptop. (I am just waiting for a stealthy late night squirt gun attack. Our household knows from experience that four well-placed drops on the keyboard of this baby will fry the motherboard, rendering mom laptop-less for a short time.)
Here’s a great example of the power of social media: Three days ago a friend sent me a link to a local news story that a teacher in Alabama had been investigated by the Secret Service for forming a geometry lesson around a scenario where one might wish to position oneself as a sniper trying to kill President Obama. The Secret Service didn’t see an actionable threat so let the fellow off the hook. The Jefferson County, Alabama school district said they would sit down with the teacher and “have a long conversation with him about what’s appropriate,” but that he would remain on the job.
I saw the story and thought, this warrants fifteen minutes of my time. A quick Google search yielded the contact information for Corner High School and the Jefferson County School Board and I made three calls asking for a statement from the school administrators or superintendent. Nothing. So, I put it out on my social media, the link to the story, and the phone number. (205-379-2000) Other people broadcast it similarly and the phones began to ring in Jefferson County, Alabama. Within a couple of hours a new statement from the school board was published, this one with much stronger language condemning the teacher’s actions and indicating that he had been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation, and that termination was possibile. By the next morning, the major news outlets had picked up the story. Mr. math-teacher isn’t getting a slap on the wrist now, he’s going to the stockade.
Collectively, we have a responsibility to help to shape this rapidly changing world into a place where our children and grandchildren will want to live. We can’t just assure their survival, we must embrace and nurture the things in the world that are beautiful and good. We must also contain the hatred that blights our society and threaten to destroy civility. Give hate groups their putrid little sand box to defile, in a well-lit corner where the authorities can keep tabs on them, but—keep them away from those of us who wish to be a part of a decent, kind, and civilized world.
On May 31, more than a handful of frustrated facebook users are planning to hop into life boats and abandon the sinking facebook ship. I have loved you, facebook. We’ve had a couple of good years together, but honestly, if those fellows thinking up Diaspora can come up with a social media venue that respects privacy and civility, and if some fantastically smart programmer can finagle a way to scrape your site to rescue the content I have posted there—I’m sorry—I’ll say goodbye. Facebook, I thought maybe you were Mr. Right, turns out instead, you are Mr. Right Now.