Internet justice and collective responsibility

The internet is amazing. It allows someone to access information physically located on the other side of the world in under a second. It lets people connect across vast distances and share their pastimes with one another. It provides a way to collect, organize, process, and share information around the world.

The internet is amazing. It allows someone to broadcast ignorant or malicious remarks to a global audience. It lets people band together in self-created filter bubbles and reinforce their opinions with one another. It provides a way to direct attention, shame, harassment, and hatred around the world.

Online interaction continues to bring together larger and larger groups of people into shared environments. A commonly espoused vision is for the internet to be a global “public square” — a place where anyone is free to come and and converse with anyone else. Yet this concept of the internet as a public square has outpaced the development of societal standards for such massive scale interactions.

When an individual violates society’s rules for acceptable interactions in an offline setting, the effect is generally relatively local to the individual: people they directly interact with will likely be affected, and they may pass that experience on to others indirectly, but this is a relatively slow process. In the case of an organized event, there may be a channel by which the effect is felt by an entire organization, but that is often the limit.

When expectations are violated on the internet, however, there are many platforms via which the radius of awareness can be rapidly and massively amplified: social media is very good at spreading both hurt and outrage. Similarly, the response to such violations tends towards similar scales, with the resulting backlash directly focused on the individual or (typically small) group which committed the initial infraction.

Notice that both the negative effect of the violation and the aggregate backlash tend to scale significantly out of proportion to how a similar act would play out in an offline setting. This is one reason why internet spats so frequently escalate far beyond what one might expect: both the initially injured party and the instigator wind up feeling justifiably wronged.

At the same time, it’s hard to point at an individual and say that they caused the problem. One could argue that the original instigator caused it, but if no one took notice, the disproportionate response would never snowball. In that sense, one could argue that those who shed light on the original content caused the problem. Neither is a clear-cut case, and trying to point fingers in such a manner doesn’t actually help.

Instead, what really needs to happen is for new societal norms to develop around internet interaction and reaction. We have to figure out what needs to change in our concept of how to be polite when it comes to the internet. Until we do, we’ll continue to see mostly polarized debates and factionalism online.