Online abuse and why going to where you’re kindest matters to you and other humans?

“Go to where you are kindest.”

–Jaron Lanier

On Thursday as part of Imagine Belfast, I’ll be speaking on a panel about the persistent (and in my view worsening) problem of online abuse: the scope and scale of which can be daunting if not frightening:

It was heartening to see how Naomi Long responded to some of her trolls by video, but sadly it hasn’t sent them packing. In fact troll is a term coined in the early days of usenet (a precursor of the web).

What’s changed is the participation levels. Twenty years ago, you had to be politics obsessed to read a blog or comment on a CompuServe forum; now, your classmates or your father-in-law is online.

Everyone is commenting, everyone has an opinion and everyone thinks that everyone else is wrong (particularly, I’ve found in post-Brexit times, the BBC). Expressive individualism is exploding.

In schools gossip chains hurt, wound and push individuals into isolation that doesn’t even end with school holidays. No September catch up is needed because everyone already knows a version of what you did.

In politics, trivia and scandal displace serious conversations around difficult to describe and difficult to resolve issues like poor investment strategies, sinking productivity, stagnant wages.

Participation in such conversations requires curiosity and/or expertise that doesn’t meet the ‘oh shiny’ emotional needs of the most expressive individuals who prefer the simplifying waters of FB and Twitter.

In Greed is Dead, a book that tries to imagine what politics looks like after the death of individualism personified in the fictitious character from Wall Street Gordon Gecko, John Kay and Paul Collier note:

An exaggerated belief in the power of models to understand our world has embued political and business leaders with overconfidence. The rise of individualism has weakened the capacity of society to work together for common purposes.

Enter the demagogues and simplifiers. Since Slugger started (20 years ago this June) the numbers of professional commentators has dropped in proportion to the rise of open platforms like Twitter and FB.

And with it has gone manners, civility and custom as per Longley

We have a vocabulary of how to deal with one another and how to behave, a vocabulary of behavior, as well as things to say to one another . . . and out of that come laws and agreed ways of doing things . . . and that in daily life are a bit like form in poetry.

What encourages this displacement is a generic focus on models (our own favourite abstraction being: UI v the Union) which in reality are large contentless tracts where culture warfare displaces substance.

Kids at school aren’t falling out with each other over whether “Henry VII was an astute and miserly politician” or not. Inter teen conflict is nearly always an emotional and/or personal thing that’s hard to escape from.

The reason why it is so intense for this generation is well highlighted this morning by Noah Smith (H/T John Naughton) in his Substack blog:

What does the internet do? Lots of stuff, but the two things I want to focus on here are distribution and memory. The internet:

  1. allows a very very large number of strangers to see what you say and do, and
  2. keeps a record of most of the things you say and do online.

What follows from this is that people can no longer ‘read the room’ online in the way they could in the ‘olden days’. As C Thi Nguyen has noted Twitter invites intimacy, and then destroys it.

Smith shares this related insight to underline the point:

…everyone who talks on the internet must always worry about their words being shown to someone who’s going to interpret it in an uncharitable way. In 2005 if I talked to a room full of economists about “human capital”, they would all instantly know that I meant “skills and knowledge”.

But now, if I talk about it online, some leftist who thinks the term means “owning people” might pop up and get mad. Sometimes the hammer of public anger can come down on some very weird targets — I once got yelled at by about 10,000 people on Twitter for saying that the “needs more cowbell” skit on Saturday Night Live was just a shaggy dog story with no real “joke” in it, and random people give me grief about that to this day.

So you never really know what will set people off! [Emphasis added]

As Jaron Lanier says in his Ten Arguments, “Social media is biased, not to the Left or the Right, but downward”. I’m not against downwards as a principle, since what goes up nearly always comes down.

But I am against an ‘operating system’ in which the ultimate self negation that a default downward brings to an individual human life, the social lives of our families, neighbourhoods, and yes nations too.

I don’t write as a paragon of virtue. Our play the ball not the man rule is a deliberately weak rule (as gravity is the weakest force in nature, and the most enabling) to serve as a custom between strangers.

Still, as Brian has noted, we have been short on women contributors, even though some of our finest contributors (Claire, Kelly, Sarah, Gladys, Lynda, Felicity, Lisa, Ms Fitz and many others) are women.

These voices are important, not just because of the quality of their contributions, but often because they are prepared to say what they have to say regardless of whether it proves to be popular or not.

In other words, they are not speaking on Slugger to participate in some game or other or to ‘perform’ to some imagined social audience in which they’re trying to compete for popularity.

As Jaron Lanier put it in Ten Arguments:

What if listening to an inner voice or heeding a passion for ethics or beauty were to lead to more important work in the long term, even if it measured as less successful in the moment? What if deeply reaching a small number of people matters more than reaching everybody with nothing? [Emphasis added]

What if it matters much more? And accidental discovery in recent months is that when we suspended comment upticks to evade a spam problem, the quality of the contributions on Slugger went up.

So that when Disqus fixed the spam problem we did not reinstate the gaming mechanism of comments where the most popular/populist got to the top from partisan ‘supporters’.

As my friend John Kellden has observed

… people who only click the like button and never comment, are, technically, really, not here. Not here in any meaningful sense.

Short of doing what Lanier recommends in Ten Arguments, and deleting your social media accounts, there is no techno fix for this online world, other than not taking it too seriously and remaining playful.

If, when mental health issues in teenagers is going through the roof, that sounds trite, it’s not meant to be. Lanier again…

How can you find happiness without authentic self-esteem? How can you be authentic when everything you read, say, or do is being fed into a judgment machine.

Answer is, you can’t. To paraphrase off an old riff but a great Irish American President of the US, we should ask not what we can do for technology, but what technology can do for us?

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