“Here Comes Everybody.”
I’ve been passively aware of the ways in which the ways in which the internet and new technologies have (and continue to) shape mankind, but Clay Shirky’s book makes my implicit impressions explicit, explaining not just what is happening, but the sociological and psychological underpinnings that drive massive changes in the ways in which humans interact.
For eons, geography was a key organizing principle. We communicated best with those who were in close proximity. The further away someone was the less we communicated, and the further away an event was, the less aware we were of it. Technology has broken down those barriers, enabling long tails of society (abuse survivors, scifi fans, or Mormon housewives-turned-entrepreneurs) to connect.
Our ability to connect on a grand scale has changed the ways in which we interact. Shirky notes that the growth in sharing that we see today is a difference so large that it has become a difference in kind. Conversations that once took place in private, or one-to-one are now broadcast on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat for friends real and virtual. In the course of sharing online, average people now break news, and elevate stories.
As a result of these connections, the average person has increased power. We the people can now embarrass (if not topple) oppressive regimes, demand change, and put pressure on drug comapnies, from the palms of our hands, without leaving home. This is amazing.
However, the use of that power goes both ways. “When you improve a group’s ability to communicate, you change what it’s capable of. What it does with that power is a separate question.” While there are many benefits to this connectivity, it can be used for good as well as evil. Terrorist groups use the internet to connect and indoctrinate new recruits. Teenage girls with eating disorders use it to swap thinspo and tips for starving. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, a well-meaning Reddit search for suspects turned into an online witch hunt that vilified innocent people.
How do we manage the bad, while maintaining the good?
In a world as boundless as the world wide web, I’m not sure we can. Norms about free speech vary from country to country, and without a central power to create or enforce norms online, these values collide. In the United States, we vilify China for restricting access to YouTube and Google, but for years banned photojournalists from taking pictures of flag draped coffins of U.S. soldiers.
Shirky notes that no effort at creating group value can be successful without some form of governance, but there is no universal virtual code of conduct (a ridiculous name). The norms that govern Wikipedia are very different from those of Facebook or Twitter.
It gets messier when you look across not only platforms, but countries. In a nation that holds freedom of speech as a hallowed right, how do we respond to the Chinese government’s (and many others’) views that such speech is a threat to national security? And how do we feel when the tables are turned and terrorists are advocating action against Americans? Where do we draw the line?
Another example of the dark side of this connectivity is the trove of absolute lies on the Internet: from the birther movement to 9/11 conspiracy theories to recent reports of Hilary Clinton’s death. Even the smallest pieces of the internet’s long tail can now find one another, enabling even the craziest crazies to find likeminded individuals to reinforce their views and add strength to their arguments. Is there a policy solution to shutting down untruths on the internet or is this protected free speech? Many would say it’s the latter.
While traditional news media acted as filters for truth, the average citizens needs to be much more savvy in evaluating information today. How can we ensure that users are informed enough to protect themselves not just from untrue news reports, but to internet scams (as in, no, that guy in Africa does actually not want to give you a million dollars)?
Trial, error, and experience will help us as a community to establish norms (which will likely evolve and change as fast as the internet does). But there will always be casualties and trolls. I don’t think the web would have it any other way.