I can’t put a date on it but I recall being in the canteen in RTE and asking one of my former colleagues in engineering to give me a quick rundown on this “internet thing”. Over diagrams and talk I became fascinated. I have to say that it was the abstract communication part of the technology that interested me more than the content possibilities. My recollection too is that I was using e-mail for a considerable time before I had anything resembling today’s net access. However, very soon after I had the net, I became aware of chat sites, i.e. very early social media.
Two things struck me. Firstly, I was working for RTE and the real time “chat” suggested citizen participation in TV current affairs. I wrote on that but failed to convince the Head of News and Current Affairs who reckoned that if it was to be used at all, it was more suited to entertainment. To spare his blushes I won’t name the Head but rest assured that I’ve reminded him over the years. (He’s a good bloke and takes the slagging well.)
Secondly, while I was arguing the potential, I was depressed by the content of these early chat sites. There was little or no, what might be termed, serious discussion. Some chat “rooms” were fine; ordinary people were having ordinary communication about mundane matters. The participants were civil, they exchanged information and well wishes across continents. I liked them and got to know some of them. However, many of the “rooms” and “sites” were devoted to intercontinental rudeness and abuse; people entered these rooms with just one thing in mind: to be nasty. In those days a “troll” referred to someone present in the room but not participating in the discussion. Trolling did not then refer to an increasing experience: ordinary discussants being subjected to abuse from people who simply wanted to ruin their chat. It seemed that this marvellous system would become a vehicle for intercontinental abuse.
Time has delivered a better outcome but that nasty strand has endured, indeed it’s flourished. In the early days the participants were mostly American and for a short time I considered the possibility that the vile speech, peppered as it was with “asshole” and “motherfucker”, was an American phenomenon. It wasn’t. This feature of the net that was established in the early days has attracted adherents across the globe and in large numbers. Anyone unfamiliar with this kind of vile, aggressive content can have a look at it by reading the comments under many of the music videos on You Tube. Discussion of the music can be informed or it can be pleasant, facile, fan-stuff but also it is routinely a shooting gallery for the ignorant and abusive.
Two related things can be said. Firstly, my experience of on-line participation has led me to the view that people behave on-line more or less as they do in the other parts of their lives. Decent people don’t become on-line monsters. They may avoid controversy or seek out flossy celebrity-centred talk, they may gossip with friends, they may keep up with family and friends, they may be active among people with a similar interest and crucially those who participate in serious discussions will do so on-line. It is therefore vital that few people follow John Waters of the Irish Times into a poorly informed technical determinism that sees attempts at on-line discussion as futile because the net is the preserve of idiots.* The truth is that just as the net is a good way of staying in touch with friends, it can also – with a bit of effort – be a good way of finding contending views and attracting useful criticism.
There is a tendency – particularly among those who don’t use it or who make little use of it – to see the net as particularly problematic. I’m reminded of a time when I was researching industrial/workplace vandalism and I came across a quote along the lines of, “Those people who break trees and park benches at night, where do you think they go during the day?” My point is that the web these days is where everyone – including the bad – goes. It is to be expected that forms of dreadful behaviour all too familiar in everyday life will appear on- line. It shouldn’t be more tolerated on line than anywhere else.
It is decades since I first heard someone say that they’d been abused on-line and that they were not going back. I argued that like resisting violence at football matches or reclaiming the streets, it is important that decent people do not vacate the space. The idea would be that the bad would be smothered by a mass of human decency and offenders would be reported and tackled. It can and has worked but there’s a problem in the way that many people use the net and the problem is facilitated by the way the net is developing.
Long before the net relative isolation was risky. In extreme cases abuse occurred in institutions, schools, prisons, camps, clubs, training – even families – areas into which good people could not or did not peer in numbers. Moreover, small, tight groups of friends attracted the person who would control by various forms of intimidation including manipulation of members’ need to belong.
Advice: Stay in the open. Don’t allow close association with any group to become overly important.
There is now considerable fear over net participation but it is misplaced. The fear should be – as always – over relatively closed groups and increasingly there are relatively closed groups on-line. Reports of parents shocked at what is going on are commonplace. Shock is not acceptable; it’s a lame excuse. There is a disgraceful acceptance of the line that young people are good at computers but older people just don’t know about it. It’s time to be intolerant of this nonsense and say that incompetence in this regard is as weird as locking oneself in the house and refusing to use broadcasting and text would have been two decades ago. Any parent – any citizen – who is not active on-line is failing. However, mere activity is not enough. It must go that bit further into understanding that the dangers present in life are present on-line. The basics haven’t changed.
Advice: Stay in the open. Don’t allow close association with any group to become overly important.
“Young people are good with computers.” Repeating it over and over again or making it a staple in mass media discussion doesn’t make it any less untrue. Saying now that young people are good with computers makes as much sense as saying forty years ago that young people are good with televisions. Young people today certainly use information technology a lot but their use tends to be quite limited. Moreover the whole thrust of development is towards a more limited use.
The great gift of the web is access to information but, we’re told, the information will be overwhelming unless it is managed. So begins the drift away from the open web as algorithms make recommendations based on past behaviour and like-minded FB friends determine taste, trends, acceptable behaviour and views.
I had a running gag a couple of years back when lecturing for Information Studies. On the way to lectures I would walk through a large open area in UCD which was equipped with very many on-line PCs providing easy access for students. I took to counting the number in use and the proportion of that number using FB. I then reported my findings to students at the start of the lecture. It was never the case that FB users were in a minority. Now, I use FB a lot and I like it but it was around then that I realised the extent to which FB had for perhaps the majority of users become the net. Since then all manner of apps have appeared whose express purpose is to make life easy by eliminating the need to search, to choose, to face something new, disturbing, distressing, confrontational or challenging.
Increasingly people do not surf the net as of yore. They rely on links, recommendations. This has two outcomes which I want to mention here. Firstly, in my own area of interest, political communication, it reduces the possibility of deliberative citizenship. ** Secondly, it is socially isolating, confines people to relatively tight groups wherein the nasty stuff familiar from media reports and scares can go unchecked.
I realise of course that there is considerable published material which argues that the net internationalises concerns that in the past locals could have swept under the carpet but this is not inconsistent with a view of net use which is relatively closed. An occasional report of injustice or protest or cruelty “going viral” does not mean that on-line pressure to conform from friends or information-management apps are not effective.
So, what’s the outcome of all this? Firstly, it should be emphasised that a portion of life has moved. It has gone on-line and it has brought with it ordinary concerns of life as well as familiar dangers. It is as important on-line as it is in the rest of life not to become isolated. In political communication the term used is “bubble”. Confinement in a bubble is like the older metaphor of an echo chamber. It’s about becoming closed off from discourse by over-reliance on a tight group of like-minded friends – no matter where they are in the world! “Cocoon” might be a better word as in most cases there are individuals fleeing to a security where they will be untroubled by questions, doubt, argument and counter-argument. “Cocoon”, however, doesn’t convey the menace which many parents have come to fear. “Gang” gets closer to the reality. Gangs are characterised by an us-against-world-mentality, rules, secrecy, discipline, leaders who are charismatic but border on insane, enforcers, penalties for breaking the rules and fear of the ultimate sanction: exclusion, banishment. “Gang” also suggests that this is a very old, familiar and serious problem.
The open web can seem scary with its cacophony, scams, intruders, liars, pornographers, schemers, predators, conspiracy theorists, religions, crackpots, healers and dealers but it is also rich in information, debate, cooperation and it has human decency aplenty. What evil is there lurks – as in the wider world – in the shadowy corners, cracks and alleyways. It’s both safe and stimulating on-line if a citizen has the confidence to wander the wide boulevards and engage openly with others. The same cannot be said for social media and restrictive apps which filter, create bubbles, cocoons and gangs. Mature citizens should be encouraged to use the confused expanses of open web to inform themselves and to participate. Yes, that old metaphor of the web as an agora is reappearing here. Younger and vulnerable citizens are safer and more likely to learn something new out on the open web.
In closing here’s a bit of advice for parents. Don’t overly limit a young person’s time on line. With limited time they’ll head straight for their little gang. Give them whatever it takes – time, skill, encouragement, money, example etc. – to see the possibilities to be free, inquisitive and participative on-line. A parent in an attack of self-pity might ask if they are failing as a parent if they can’t or don’t have a life on-line? Unfortunately, the answer is yes!