Positivity in the Internet Age

Locker by John Steven Fernandez

The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; the pessimist fears this is true. -James Branch Cabell

Today the Library of Congress announced its acquisition of the entire public twitter archive, billions of tweets covering the extraordinary (Barack Obama’s election victory tweet), the hyper-ordinary (that day last month when I tweeted about drinking tea), the sweet and encouraging (listen in to a Wednesday night #yalitchat to see what I’m talking about), and the bullying and cruel (including threats of rape and violence).

At the center of all this is important questions about Free Speech versus hate and slander, as well as other questions about what is “personal publishing” and what is “conversation between contributors”.

It seems clear from the tone of the LoC announcement that their primary purpose in archiving public tweets is to record pivotal moments in twitter’s “personal publishing” history. If there’s a purpose to this archival effort, it is so that future historians will be able to search the database for the quick soundbites that make up so much of modern society’s “important moments”. With that aim, it seems logical to just save it all, and let “history sort it out”– finding the important tweets among billions of announcements about tea and #amwatching television updates.

And yet part of what makes the twitter platform unique is the level of interaction that occurs between contributors, the @ function creating real-time chat rooms comprised of friends from both online and “real life”. The best of twitter is comprised of interaction that occurs in back-and-forth dialogue between users: conversations that become difficult to follow through reverse searches, conversations that can not be easily summed up into a 140 character quote of the thoughts exchanged. This is the interaction that keeps me tweeting, and I fear that the LoC, and as a result, future historians, will misunderstand the the importance of the medium as they attempt to preserve it in static “archival” form.

Meanwhile, what of the dreck? The spam, the hate, the digital bullying?

Digital bullying especially is a very tricky subject, and one that I think is fascinating to reflect on, as we embark on this great archiving of our collective 140 character soundbites.

One of the first things I hear when the subject of digital bullying comes up is people who claim that “you wouldn’t say that to my face”– the idea that the anonymity of the internet somehow inspires people to say things that they wouldn’t have the courage or rudeness to say directly. I disagree. I know that I have never said anything online that I wouldn’t say directly, and experience tells me that the people who do say things that are out of line– who threaten violence, or harass others for months on end– act the same way with those they interact with in their offline life. While internet interaction often lacks the subtlety of the real world (lack of facial expressions/tone of voice), a bully is often still a bully, regardless of medium.

What is true, however, is that the “law of the land” of internet interaction is heavily in favor of free speech. Prosecuting internet bullying is all but impossible. Insulting someone is protected. Mocking someone is fair game. Repeated unwanted communication is, by nature of how accounts are formed and accessed, impossible to prevent against, unless the victim chooses to cease having a web presence entirely.

Looking at the victim’s lack of recourse to hurtful internet behavior, it sometimes seems difficult to remember the positives (like important historical tweets, and the kind of encouraging dialogues that do occur) that twitter-style interaction gives us. What else can be done, though, other than placing the weight of responsibility on the victim, and telling them to “toughen up” against negative internet assaults? It is a question with no easy answer.

In my search for positivity (and yes, some days it’s definitely a “search” and not a “stumble-upon”), one of the things that I’ve found important to keep in mind is that the internet is very karmic. Things tend to escalate very quickly, and it is often quite difficult to change or deflect energy once it has been unleashed.

This is in direct contrast to many “real world” bullying situations, in which a powerful bully can silence all negative opinions. The internet has a particular way of giving back what is sent out into it: public denouncements are often quickly denounced themselves as being “out of line”, and bullies who are unable to let drama rest are often called out for “boring” their friends with their obsessive hate campaigns. Bullying, as a short term strategy, can be effective in making the victim feel bad. However, internet bullying, unlike real world power struggles, does little to win friends or influence people.

Is this any consolation to a victim of a cyber bully attack? Probably not. But as I reflect on all the hate and name-calling that is about to become part of the LoC’s national archive, it’s a small silver lining to know that those who spend their digital life picking on others are unlikely to be the web contributors that matter. Hate doesn’t work here, people. Revenge for “wrongs” is ineffective. Just because you can, just because you have the free speech “right” to be cruel to others– doesn’t make it morally okay, and, perhaps more importantly, doesn’t make it a smart plan of action. Want to be a voice that matters in the digital future? Promote love and encouragement. Give advice and ask questions. Share.

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One response to “Positivity in the Internet Age

  1. Very well put! When I read the article about this LOC dealio this afternoon, every thought that scampered around in my head was a thought that you touched on with your eloquence. Three cheers for love and encouragement!!

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