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We get the net—and society—we build

The next time you see someone on Twitter point to an argument and gleefully announce, “Fight!

We get the net—and society—we build


The next time you see someone on Twitter point to an argument and gleefully announce, “Fight! Fight!” and you retweet that, think about the net you are encouraging and creating. You’re breeding only more of the same.

Oh, we’ve all done it. At least I’ll confess that I’ve done it. I’ve been in fights online I’m ashamed of. Like kids left alone by the substitute teacher, we — many of us — exercised our sudden freedom by shooting spitballs around the room. Have we gotten that out of our systems yet? Isn’t it time to stop and ask what kind of net and society we’re creating here?

I’ve been the object of potshots from a cadre of young curmudgeons who attack me instead of my ideas. We give it a haughty name — the ad hominem attack — but it’s just a kind of would-be assassination, sniping at the person to shut off the idea. I’ve watched these attacks be retweeted as reward, over and over again. Some might say that’s what I get for being public. Hell, I wrote a book about being public. But I hope personal attack isn’t the price one has to pay for sharing thoughts. What chill does that put on public discussion?

I was waiting for another example of a “Fight! Fight!” tweet to write about this choice we have. But then today I read about something far, far worse in singer Amanda Palmer’s blog. She, too, was getting ready to write about being the object of hate online — something we briefly talked about in a conversation regarding social media a few weeks ago. But then Amanda searched and found the tragic, wasteful story of a girl who couldn’t take the abuse she’d received online and off and finally killed herself. That’s only partly a story about the internet. But it’s very much a story about damaged humanity. Go read Amanda’s post now and watch the video there if you can bear to. Especially read the comments: heartfelt stories from more victims of attacks who, thank God, are here to tell their tales and share their lessons.

In the U.K., people are being arrested for posting hate online — “malicious telecommunications,” it’s called, as if the “tele” makes it worse. In France, a government minister is demanding that Twitter help censor, outlaw, and arrest the creators of hate online. I side with Glenn Greenwald on this: Nothing could be more dangerous. “Criminalizing ideas doesn’t make them go away any more than sticking your head in the sand makes unpleasant things disappear,” says Greenwald.

Yes, this is not a trend that can be delegated to government and wished away with legislation or prosecution. Or to put it another way: This is not government’s problem.

This is our problem. Your problem. My problem. Every time we link to, laugh at, and retweet — and retweet and retweet and retweet — personal attacks on people, we only invite more of the same. And every time we do *not* call out someone and scold them for their uncivil behavior, we condone that behavior and invite more of it. Thus we build the net — and the society — we deserve.

Again, I’ll not claim purity myself. I’ve ridiculed people rather than ideas and I’m ashamed for my part in that.

And mind you, I won’t suggest for a moment that we should not attack ideas and argue about them and fight over them with passion and concern. We must argue strenuously about difficult topics like guns and taxes and war. That is deliberative democracy. That process and freedom we must protect.

But when argument over an idea turns to attack against a person, then it crosses the line. When disliking a person becomes public ridicule of that person, it is hate. Dealing with that isn’t the responsibility of government. It is our responsibility.

The next time you see a tweet ridiculing a person or linking to someone who does, please respond with a challenge: “Is this the world you want to encourage? What does this accomplish? What does this create?” A week or so ago, I finally did that myself — “Really?” I asked a Twitter fight announcer. “Is this what you want to encourage? Aren’t you ashamed?” — and I was only sorry I had not done it before.

It would be self-serving and trivial to point to personal examples of attacks that spread. Indeed, it is self-serving — and ultimately only food to the trolls — to respond yourself to attacks on you; that gives the attackers just what they want. But that should not stop me from giving support to others who are attacked by those who think that scoring snark shots will only get them attention (because to date, it does). The next time I see an attack on a person, I need to call it out. I’d ask you to do the same.

We are building the norms of our new net society. It can go either way; there’s nothing, absolutely nothing to say that technology will lead to a better or worse world. It only provides us choices and the opportunity to show our own nature in what we choose. Will you support the fights, the attacks, the hate? Or will you stand up for the victims and against the bullies and trolls and their cheering mobs who gleefully tweet, “Fight! Fight!”?

Please read Amanda’s post and the comments from her supporters — Gaga would call them her little monsters — and take their stories to heart. Whose side are you on? Which net and society will you build?