The Internet and “Civil” Society

Stephen DeAngelis

May 6, 2010

The world continues to change. Certainly that is nothing new. From the beginning of creation, the world has been in a constant state of change. Some changes, however, are more disturbing than others. Those changes have to do with behavior. Adults, I suspect, have always wrestled with the behavior problems of teenagers. A German proverb states, “When the boy is growing he has a wolf in his belly.” In years past, most wolves were boys and the savage behavior of the boys with wolves in their bellies was evident to everyone. In the information age, the wolf’s gender, let alone identity, is not always known. The anonymity offered by Internet, coupled with the explosive growth of social networking sites, has provided new weapons for teenage wolves. The consequences of wolf-like behavior in the information age can be tragic; “such as, the suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince in Massachusetts following months of harassment.” [“Cyberbullying experts say parents, students need to bridge communication gap,” by Diana Samuels, San Jose Mercury News, 17 April 2010]. This post isn’t about teenagers per se or about cyberbullying. It’s about how the information age has affected an entire generation and will likely affect generations to come. What prompted me to think about this topic was an article in The Economist that described the latest generation as “digital natives” [“The net generation, unplugged,” 4 March 2010]. The article begins:

“They are variously known as the Net Generation, Millennials, Generation Y or Digital Natives. But whatever you call this group of young people—roughly, those born between 1980 and 2000—there is a widespread consensus among educators, marketers and policymakers that digital technologies have given rise to a new generation of students, consumers, and citizens who see the world in a different way. Growing up with the internet, it is argued, has transformed their approach to education, work and politics. ‘Unlike those of us a shade older, this new generation didn’t have to relearn anything to live lives of digital immersion. They learned in digital the first time around,’ declare John Palfrey and Urs Gasser of the Berkman Centre at Harvard Law School in their 2008 book, ‘Born Digital’, one of many recent tomes about digital natives. The authors argue that young people like to use new, digital ways to express themselves: shooting a YouTube video where their parents would have written an essay, for instance.”

The generation just ahead of these Generation Y folks were the Generation X kids who grew up watching MTV videos and playing organized soccer (hence, the rise of the term “soccer mom” in our popular vocabulary). I remember educators lamenting the fact that Gen Xers didn’t have the same attention span as previous generations. The quick pace of music videos, they believed, had trained an entire generation to move quickly from one thing to the next lest they get bored. Gen Xers were also used to being praised simply for participating, rather than excelling, in activities. It is not unknown for soccer moms to call their adult child’s boss and ask why he or she was being so insensitive and mean to their child. The world, however, has managed to move forward as Gen Xers have assumed their place in the work force. In my first post about Generation Y entitled Capitalism and the Net Generation, I wrote: “My first reaction to the Net Generation is caution not anxiety.” The Economist claims that digital natives are only superficially a “net generation” in that they use the Internet but most of them don’t really understand the technology behind it. The article continues:

“[There are] calls for education systems to be transformed in order to cater to these computer-savvy students, who differ fundamentally from earlier generations of students: professors should move their class discussions to Facebook, for example, where digital natives feel more comfortable. ‘Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach,’ argues Marc Prensky in his book ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’, published in 2001. Management gurus, meanwhile, have weighed in to explain how employers should cope with this new generation’s preference for collaborative working rather than traditional command-and-control, and their need for constant feedback about themselves. But does it really make sense to generalize about a whole generation in this way? Not everyone thinks it does. ‘This is essentially a wrong-headed argument that assumes that our kids have some special path to the witchcraft of “digital awareness” and that they understand something that we, teachers, don’t—and we have to catch up with them,’ says Siva Vaidhyanathan, who teaches media studies at University of Virginia. Michael Wesch, who pioneered the use of new media in his cultural anthropology classes at Kansas State University, is also skeptical, saying that many of his incoming students have only a superficial familiarity with the digital tools that they use regularly, especially when it comes to the tools’ social and political potential. Only a small fraction of students may count as true digital natives, in other words. The rest are no better or worse at using technology than the rest of the population.”

The article goes on to argue that labeling all Generation Y individuals with the moniker “digital native” is simply too broad of a generalization. I can’t argue with that — there are always an enormous number of exceptions in any group about which a generalization has been made. The article continues:

“Writing in the British Journal of Education Technology in 2008, a group of academics led by Sue Bennett of the University of Wollongong set out to debunk the whole idea of digital natives, arguing that there may be ‘as much variation within the digital native generation as between the generations’. They caution that the idea of a new generation that learns in a different way might actually be counterproductive in education, because such sweeping generalizations ‘fail to recognize cognitive differences in young people of different ages, and variation within age groups’. The young do not really have different kinds of brains that require new approaches to school and work, in short. What about politics, and the idea that, thanks to the internet, digital natives will grow up to be more responsible citizens, using their technological expertise to campaign on social issues and exercise closer scrutiny over their governments? Examples abound, from Barack Obama’s online campaign to activism on Twitter. A three-year study by the MacArthur Foundation found that spending time online is ‘essential for young people to pick up the social and technical skills they need to be competent citizens in the digital age’. But discussions about ‘digital citizens’ run into the same problems as those about digital natives: there may simply be too much economic, geographic, and demographic disparity within this group to make meaningful generalizations. After all, not everyone born between 1980 and 2000 has access to digital technology: many in the developing world do not.”

The article then gets to the subject that really sparked my interest, the idea that the Internet has brought about “a new social contract: do what you like online, as long as you steer clear of politics.” The article really doesn’t discuss the subject in any detail. It concludes, “A recent study by the Pew Research Center, an American think-tank, found that internet users aged 18-24 were the least likely of all age groups to e-mail a public official or make an online political donation. But when it came to using the web to share political news or join political causes on social networks, they were far ahead of everyone else.” The belief that you “do what you like online” has made pornography and gambling sites the most profitable ones on the web. It has also increased the number of ways that people can be cruel. Jeffrey Zaslow claims that “all of us now live under the threat of easy and instant humiliation [“Surviving the Age of Humiliation,” Wall Street Journal, 5 May 2010]. He continues:

“It’s no longer just celebrities and business executives who need to think about aggressive reputation-protection and face-saving techniques. Not long ago, people who routinely plugged their own names into online search engines were thought to be engaging in ‘vanity Googling.’ These days, it is an act of self-preservation. ‘Google yourself at least once a week,’ advises Richard Levick, who heads a strategic communications firm in Washington, D.C. ‘You need to track what’s being said about you’ on blogs, message boards and social-networking websites. Any time you leave your house, you could be targeted. Drive over to Wal-Mart for a gallon of milk and you may end up on PeopleofWalmart.com. The site—not, needless to say, affiliated with the retailer—runs smirk-inducing photos of overweight or oddly dressed shoppers, most of them sent in by other shoppers. Such sites raise the question: Have we become a more malicious society?”

This online incivility worries people like L. Gordon Crovitz, a media and information industry advisor and executive who is a former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, executive vice president of Dow Jones and president of its Consumer Media Group [“Is Internet Civility an Oxymoron?Wall Street Journal, 19 April 2010]. Crovitz doesn’t believe that bad behavior on the Web is confined to Generation Y. He writes:

“For those of us tempted to hope that new technology might improve human nature, the Web has proved a disappointment. The latest online reality: comment sections so uncivilized and uninformative that it’s clear the free flow of anonymous comments has become way too much of a good thing. The common practice is for news and other Web sites to treat all comments equally, whether made anonymously or using real names, via obscenities or reasoned debate. The hope was that people would be civil. Instead, many comment areas have become wastelands of attacks and insults.”

Crovitz notes he is not alone in his beliefs. He points to the comments of Doug Feaver, who writes a blog called dot.comments for the Washington Post. “Too many of us like to think that we have made great progress in human relations,” Feaver writes. “Unmoderated comments provide an antidote to such ridiculous conclusions.” Crovitz continues:

“Part of the problem is that people who conceal their names seem to feel free to say things they never would if their identities were known. There are obvious cases—dissidents living in authoritarian countries—where anonymity is needed. But as Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. wrote recently, message boards dominated by anonymous comments often become ‘havens for a level of crudity, bigotry, meanness and plain nastiness that shocks the tattered remnants of our propriety.'”

Crovitz goes on to discuss how some sites are trying to curb abuses and promote more civil comments. The problem, he believes, is getting worse not better. He continues:

“By now, there’s an entire vocabulary to describe bad behavior, from flaming (hostile interactions between people on comment boards) to astroturfing (anonymous postings made to appear as grass-roots efforts that are actually organized political or PR efforts). Used properly, the Web can deliver crowd-sourced useful information. As the ‘balloon boy’ story was under way last year, National Public Radio’s online commenters posted complex mathematical equations showing that the claim about a boy floating in a helium balloon his father had built could not be true. Here’s what passes for flaming on NPR.org: ‘Show your math!’ A Web site launched this month called Unvarnished goes so far as to make anonymous comments its business model. It invites ‘community-contributed, business-focused assessments of professional performance’ of named individuals, with commenters kept anonymous, which means readers have no way to assess their interests or biases. The subjects of comments can’t remove them. Michael Arrington of TechCrunch.com objected to this approach, writing sarcastically, ‘It’s time for a centralized, well-organized place for anonymous mass defamation on the Internet.’ He figures that ‘we’re going to be forced to adjust as a society,’ to forgive indiscretions and to get smarter about ignoring comments from sources whose credibility is low.”

Despite the incivility that he sees on the web, Crovitz hasn’t given up entirely on its value. He concludes:

“The Web is a great liberator, giving millions of people the ability to offer opinions with the ease once reserved for, say, newspaper columnists. The downside is that comment overload and anonymity create more noise than wisdom. Since it’s now clear human nature hasn’t improved with the transition to digital media, we should cheer efforts to make it as easy for readers to decide which commenters to trust as it has become to post the comments. Technology, for all its benefits, is no substitute for readers’ own judgments.”

I agree with Crovitz that it is often the passionate rather than the informed who take the time to comment online. Unfortunately, the most passionate people populate the extremes in society. You don’t have to be a digital native to be extreme and misuse the web to distribute hate, bigotry, and lies. What worries me most about Generation Y is that they will grow up believing that such incivility is normal and acceptable. It’s not. President John F. Kennedy once said, “So let us begin anew – remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.” Although he was talking about civility in politics, something that has definitely been lost, his sentiments hold true for civility in all of our activities. I began this post by noting that world is always changing. Change can either be good or bad. As an optimist, I believe that we can make the information age an age of civility. In order to do so, however, the vast majority of people will have to rise above the noise created by extremists.