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?

  • Yes.

  • Todd

    loved this as always, but am curious how you feel about something. Right now I see celebrities as ideas that carry symbolism and “internet identities” on tumblr etc as celebrities. Using a celebrity name as a Twitter handle or making a picture of a pop culture reference your Facebook profile is loaded with some underlying thing. These celebrity symbols are like brands you want to associate yourself with by wearing “Ryan Gosling” instead of “Ralph Lauren.” This is an old thought but the Internet has sort of forced bookish people to stay on the Internet forever as eventually libraries/teachers/conversations with friends would grow stale at some point or another but the Internet has an endless stream of more and more fascinating things. Celebrities/”internet identities” sort of serve as a code for those things like you can know someone has read this that and what not if they write a short story entitled, “Marie Calloway.” These people’s names are a “symbol” and have loaded information behind them. This is getting long winded but I’m trying to say I feel like there is an “idea” of these internet identities that people are ridiculing and criticizing (or of course praising) as they might as well be celebrities since they’re followed by people who don’t know know them in the physical world. Knowing a lot of people who rely-heavily on “talking in celebrities” I’m just very curious how you would suggest talking about the idea of celebrities/internet personalities without hurting the person behind the identity. How do you make social commentary on the “Ed Hardy aesthetic” when Ed Hardy is a 19 year old girl with a popular tumblr?

  • SHaGGGz

    Equating “ridicule” with “hate” in the context of government regulation is unhelpful and confuse the issue, when we consider the phenomena of hate crimes and hate speech as legal concepts. Ridicule is a powerful tool, a favorite of satire, which can lead to positive social change. There is much in the world worth ridiculing, and skillful deployment of ridicule can be far more effective than brute shouting matches. Let us not equate this with vicious abuse that can drive one to suicide.

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  • Peter

    “This is not government’s problem.”

    This presumes the government is separate from the people.

    The job of the government is to represent us, because we chose them, and part of that is saying what is and is not acceptable and proscribing consequences where necessary.

    • jdock

      The government is not there to dictate morality but rather to instantiate and maintain ethics [ie, laws]. When those laws impede one’s ability to express oneself, even if one is simply full of vitriol and hatred, those laws only serve to hamper the expressive power of everyone else. If one were to follow such a law to its reasonable logical end, it would make illegal any sort of negative speech about one’s own government—or really anything. I for one, would rather take a personal responsibility to call out bullies, trolls and other haters for what they are because I think it would help to create a more civil internet and perhaps teach more people how to hold a discussion of opposing viewpoints without it degrading into calling each other poopfaces.

  • Nice post & i am agree with you.

  • a1brandz

    Social Media is a place we share our views and connect to the world and say everything freely but meantime we should never forget our moral responsibility of not to post any hateful post. We must use this platform responsibly and spread love instead of hatred.

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  • mattwardman

    Havng read a bit of them, the reactions to those Amanda Palmer posts seem to have a lot of people advocating beating up alleged bullies with 2x4s or baseball bats, kicking them in the noodles, or getting bigger friends to do the violence on their behalf.

    On media, how do we deal with professional victims using their victimhood to bully others?

    Go figure.

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  • Jie

    Usually, we get used to laughing at or giving some attacks on others
    when there’s something wrong. But we never think about that how they feel if we
    did so. When we say something to someone, we should ask ourselves like this: do
    I really need so? What will happen? Hate online especially hate on someone is
    really a bad behavior, we can do nothing but encourage more people to do so. I
    like one saying that “a person is a person no matter who you are”. So please
    respect everyone when you begin to say hello to him or her.

  • Jim Hansen

    I co manage a Facebook page for a major Dance magazine. Each year we host a Top 100 DJ vote, this may sound trivial but as wages of DJs are inextricably linked to this vote it has a real world application.

    In 2011 the winner was David Guetta the French DJ/Producer, where am I going with this? Well now I will get to the bones of my point.

    As the results were announced the flood of hatred started and it did not stop for weeks and in all honesty the hate is still flowing but now as a trickle and not a flood.

    I was online every night after the Vote results were announced sifting through each and every comment, I ended up posting a rule that said any comments that I deemed in breach of our code of conduct rules (that is the magazines not face books) would be deleted. In the end I had to delete over 4000 comments.

    These comments ranged from racist slurs and homophobic insults, to death threats to the mans family.

    I was shocked at the vitriol something as harmless as a favourite DJ vote could inspire people to write.

  • Vadim

    Europeans are correct: online verbal attacks shall be punished more severely than the offline ones, for the simple reason that offline a a smart asshole always runs risk of being physically abused, and that tends to curtail his/her activities without any government intervention. Online there is no such limitation, and the trolls have to be curtailed by some superior force, hence the police needs the tools to fight the “tele”- versions of the crimes that in offline variety are are easily handled by the society (by simply beating the bully).

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