Does everything suck on the internet?

flickr photo shared by Tim Pierce under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

This week for EC&I 832, our assigned readings and viewings included a few particular examples that really paint a pretty bleak picture. Sherry Turkle (again) writes of her concern with the loss of conversation and the ability to be alone. Fair enough, she has a point. I am a bit surprised she doesn’t bring up the fact that with easy answers available, we have stopped letting children wonder and think creatively (if we can just Google it, then every kid can be told fairly instantly why the sky is blue rather than being asked, “Well, why do you think the sky is blue?”).

I still disagree that conversations have necessarily been ended by the internet and our attachment to devices but then again, I am not a child, teenager, or even in my early 20s. I learned to have conversations before the internet and didn’t get attached to my device all the time until 2009 although prior to that I had spent a whole lot of time at or near a computer. Since I discovered the internet, I found there were all sorts of interesting people out there that I wanted to talk to. And, well, I got a wee bit addicted to World of Warcraft. But I digress. I have had various relationships over the years mediated through and by technology. I met my husband online (and yes, he is the reason I got attached to my phone) when we still lived in different provinces. I have friends elsewhere who I really only converse with digitally. I actually brought this issue up with two of them the other night as we were having a good conversation on Facebook chat. We met through grad school but only one of us is still living in the same city now. In fact, I became far closer with them since I moved away, now having to make an effort to maintain contact. So there, Turkle! Some of us can still converse in text, still gain inspiration and show vulnerability in a digital way.

The second item of note was Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk on public shame(ing). I have referenced it before but I rewatched it because it is powerful. I remember the scandal breaking when her relationship with Clinton became public but I never gave much thought to what was happening to her or what would become of her. She does an amazing job of telling her story and keeping a balance of light and dark. She talks about the scary world we live in now where public shaming is a sport, where the more humiliating something is, the more people want to share it. I’ve written about the awful side of the internet before. But those two items in conjunction definitely weighed me down. Does everything suck on the internet?

Yes. In fact, everything does suck. Because another video we were assigned to watch is Ron Jonson’s TED Talk about one tweet ruining a life. The central story is that of Justine Sacco who tweeted as she was getting on a plane to Africa in December 2013 and discovered after she landed that the tongue-in-cheek joke she thought she’d tweeted to her 176 or so followers had been shared widely, gotten her fired, and basically ruined her life. Mostly because people on the internet gleefully shared it and came with torches and pitchforks, looking for a monster to destroy. So yes. Reading and watching these three items, it is hard not to feel like everything sucks with the internet.

A powerful video about trolls shared by Barbara Dewitt

This isn’t how I see the internet, though. Maybe I am blinding myself and yet I still find myself agreeing with people like Clay Shirky who wrote Cognitive Surplus in 2010. The point of the book is that a good portion of the world today find themselves with free time. This is new, especially if you think of the broad span of history. So today we have a fair bit of spare time. Yes, we may find it evaporates darn quickly (even without being sucked into looking at cat pictures on the internet), but it is there for a large portion of the population. We can watch television, have hobbies, read books. We find ways to fill this time. Shirky’s point is that many people use this free time to do pretty awesome things and those things are facilitated by the internet and technology like cell phones. We have extra brain power and technology has allowed us to use that not to solely to consume but also to collaborate.

This is a TED talk that he did in 2010 on the topic (or you can check out his book)

This is the internet I try to engage with. I answer friends on Facebook when the ask questions I can help with. I try to answer questions when I come across them and can find the answer. This is the sort of person I am at work and this is the sort of person I want to be on the internet too. I have found others who feel the same way. The internet is not solely filled with trolls and people who want to tear you down (or ignore you).

Another older TED Talk by JonathanZittrain talks about the ways in which the internet is made of and full of random acts of kindness. (This was all being said and written and published as Turkle was preparing to publish her book Alone Together, marking the end of her optimistic view and the beginning of her concerns.)

Did that internet really disappear? Are things getting that much worse on the internet?

And if they are, whose fault is it? More importantly, how do we fix it? (I know, Turkle says we should put down our devices but I am not convinced that the only cure we need is less screen time.)

flickr photo shared by JD Hancock under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

Monica Lewinsky called for a return to compassion (and Sherry Turkle has called for more empathy and compassion also). Great. Yes! I agree. And who, exactly, is going to make sure that kids today grow up to be more compassionate?

Jason Ohler suggests that education needs to include character education, the forming of what we would consider good human beings rather than leaving it solely to children or families or anyone else in a child’s life to ensure that the future adults will be ones who understand our social contracts. Yes, we all want parents and families and role models to raise kids to be compassionate. And largely, we blame the parents when they don’t (just check out a recent article about the mother of the man who committed the Oregon college shooting). However, if the purpose of education is to produce citizens (at least on some level, and think about what we are taught in kindergarten), I would hope we strive for citizens we would actually want to be with rather than kids on the island in Lord of the Flies.

So here I am, raising the shout. I want the internet to be a good place. I want technology to help people rather than just making it easier to be mean. I will leave positive comments if I comment, will share things that build people up rather than knocking them down. I will try to show people ways to be better citizens of the internet. How about you? Have you given up? What will you commit to doing to make a change?

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