I am afraid of the internet

Panic room. The brilliant Ed Lee shared an even more brilliant Ignite presentation on his blog this morning – a presentation all about how social media could theoretically (except it’s not so theoretical, really) go very bad, very quickly.

I encourage you to watch the clip, it’s a fast-moving five minutes. The nutshell version, though, is it depicts a fictionalized scenario starting with one woman rickrolling Chatroulette and ending with a riot that leaves dozens dead in a matter of hours. The truly terrifying part? The scenario, while fictional, is entirely plausible (and indeed each component of it actually happened, just never pieced together like this).

It’s a sobering reminder of just how quickly things can spread online but more than that, to me at least, it’s a sobering reminder that while social media can connect people unlike anything else that came before them, those connections can be dangerous.

You never really hear about sidewalk rage

We’ve all experienced the isolating effect of being in a car. When we’re on the road, contained in our bubbles of tempered glass and steel, we do things that we’d never, ever do in person. If someone cut in front of you on a sidewalk would you scream “HEEYYY!!!!” at them or flip them the bird? Not likely. But get in a car and suddenly you’re honking, screaming and giving them the finger like it’s going out of style.

Now take that phenomenon and isolate the person even further. Instead of a few inches of glass and metal, separate the people by thousands of kilometres. Take their faces and flatten them to a 2d image, maybe even a cartoon avatar. The scenario in the Ignite talk suddenly seems a lot more plausible, doesn’t it? No way the exboyfriend, coming across a crowd of people watching his former flame singing a shitty 80s tune in a public square, starts handing out her address on slips of paper. But put the same situation online and suddenly things are very different.

Stop the world, I want to get off

It terrifies me, in a lot of ways, because the speed with which technology evolves is incongruent with society’s ability to adapt the social norms we’ve come do depend on. We’ve had cars on highways for a century and yet we still act like total goons when we get behind the wheel. Rules of courtesy go out the window.

It’s too easy to ignore consequences when they aren’t there in front of you. We do things we never otherwise would because we’re not there to see the effects firsthand. It’s easy – too easy – to say or do something that a rational person would ultimately live to regret.

Technologies like social media have enabled a brand new way of connecting and interacting with our world and I don’t want to downplay the positive aspects of these connections and interactions because the examples of good are many. But we do ourselves a disservice if we pretend it’s all honey and roses.

Creative Commons License photo credit: LunaDiRimmel

1 comment

  1. Wow. Thanks for sharing. Interesting things to think about, both personally and as a community manager. If the scenario in question was a young woman posting to a community site or public forum, where would responsibility lie?
    To again use your example of driving the car, is it the manufacturer’s responsibility to teach you how to drive? No. But they do need to supply you with a tested and safe product.
    Really curious to see how this concept translates to online communities, casually and legally.

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