Online hostility has been around since the “early days” of online forums and message boards, but with the rise of social networking sites and the increasing ease of online participation, it’s become even more widespread.
Two years ago awareness about the issue was drawn to the forefront after the much-publicized death threats received by Kathy Sierra. Last month social media scholar dahah boyd was the target of harassment at Web 2.0 Expo. And this week the escalating battle between a mommy blog site and her anonymous critics – who have gone to great lengths to point out the meanspiritedness of some information on the mommy site by being meanspirited themselves – continues. Unfortunately there is no shortage of incidences.
(These three examples don’t even start to address the issue of cyberbullying experienced by minors, which carries additional ethical and legal complexities.)
I’m no stranger to online hostility. Like many people, I’ve been on the receiving end of my share of attacks, and in speaking out about the need for cybercivility, I’ve even, ironically, received a thinly veiled physical threat.
I wonder… when did it become an apparently accepted online norm to try to silence people by insulting, intimidating and attacking them through aggressive online behavior? When did such actions against individuals too frequently become the reaction of choice instead of engaging in spirited debate and passionate dissent? And when exactly did the rest of us agree to stand by, often turning a blind eye, and allow this to happen, instead of speaking out in vehement protest and demanding a cultural change?
Fortunately there are serious efforts underway by advocates, attorneys and concerned individuals to halt the progression of online hostility via public education about the problem, anti-cyberbullying/harassment programs and legal restraints. I proudly count myself among them.
In the coming weeks and months I’ll be speaking out more about this, as I’ve already done on my Twitter account. Stay tuned.
In Is this Blog Justice?, Philip Young questions whether the reposting of a photograph of Jackie Danicki’s alleged attacker on the London Underground by others is ethical:
“If someone we know were to be attacked we’d all want to do what we could to help. We might think that a reasonably well read weblog offered a useful platform for doing so. But would it be ethical?….
… as the CIPR [see the Chartered Institute of Public Relation’s Social Media Guidelines — Consultation here] thinks about a social media code of conduct which includes issues of competence, I wonder if this incident highlights an important distinction between citizen journalism and its more established equivalent?”
(A quick point: Please read Jackie’s disturbing story, as well as the additional information she leaves in the comments on her post. Also note that I’m using the word “alleged” here not to question Jackie veracity, but as a legal term reflecting the status of her claim.)
Perhaps I’m mincing words, but I’m not sure the question is one of ethics as much as asking whether the republishing of the photograph of the individual in question is the right thing to do vs. whether it is legally sound to do.
If this man is the person who actually committed the assault (which is the issue here), then one could argue that finding him and bringing him to justice is a social responsibility, part of which is asking the public to help identify him. One could further argue that republishing his photograph on a private blog is not that different from publishing it through an official law enforcement site, at least conceptually, assuming the original source of the information is reliable. Furthermore, since the attack occurred in a public setting, an argument of invasion of privacy by the assailant could not be as easily made.
However, whether this is a legally sound action is another matter. Should any initially unknown facts or issues arise, anyone who has republished the photograph puts themselves at greater risk than simply having linked to the original post or Jacki’s Flickr picture (which, by the way, as of right now has been viewed 2,604 times). And should the assailant make any counterclaims of harm caused him by the publishing or republishing of the photograph (stranger things have happened), then anyone who has participated in this may be on the line as well.
For what it’s worth, I commend Jackie for having handled the attack as she did — by filing an official report, by publicly sharing her story, and by having the wherewithal to take a photograph of the alleged assailant and posting it on her blog. Hopefully the perpetrator will be caught soon.
While there is a good reason we have a democratic legal system with corresponding laws that help guide societal behavior (the always debatable issue being, of course, to what degree the legal system impacts individual and societal rights), it’s bothersome when the law gets in the way and isn’t as progressive as perhaps it should be.
Case in point is an ABA eReport article that discusses a New York State proposal that would designate legal blogs as advertising, thus subjecting them to state scrutiny and regulation:
“The storm was set off by a proposal that ‘computer-accessed communications’ such as blogs be included in New York’s definition of legal advertising, and therefore require state scrutiny. The proposal, by a committee created by the state’s Administrative Board of Courts, also suggests the state code of professional responsibility extend court jurisdiction to out-of-state legal advertising that appears in New York….
And if blog posts must be approved, what’s the point? ‘This seems to be another in a series of recent regulatory efforts by state bar regulators that seem woefully out of touch with the Internet era,’ wrote Dennis Kennedy, a St. Louis lawyer who posts at Between Lawyers.” [Read Kennedy’s post If Lawyers Can Advertise in New York, They Can Advertise Anywhere…But They Probably Can’t.]
Equally bothersome, however, is when individuals expose themselves to legal liability by doing something that appears to be intentionally stupid. I’m referring to examples provided in the USA Today article Courts are asked to crack down on bloggers, websites, such as posting false STD information about someone on Don’tDateHimGirl.com or setting up a fake MySpace.com page that contains obscene content. Not very smart — and that’s an understatement.
When a blog is used for professional marketing and networking, one of the big questions is always how much of the blogger’s personal views to include and how much of his or her personal life to reference.
Great question, and there’s no consensus. For example, some of my online PR and social media colleagues openly weave personal events from their lives into their blog posts, frequently to illustrate some point, but sometimes just to share with readers and others in the profession. But another colleague has a policy not to mention anything personal, whether in online or offline conversations, unless it’s on a superficial and inconsequential “small talk” level. These are, of course, vastly different approaches.
I’ve often wondered what the right balance is, given that blogging and other social media, is, well, social in nature. When readers who are perhaps not very familiar with the culture of social media, as well as readers from traditional corporate environments (where the belief in message control still exists and is desperately hung on to), come across a post that’s more personal in nature, how will they respond? Will they assume the blogger is not “being professional” in that instance?
I’ve been thinking about this more in the past few days after the conversations I had with several of the session leaders and attendees at BlogOrlando. Those immersed in blogging and social media were more comfortable with the inevitable intertwining of the “purely” professional (although I’d argue that there is no such thing) with the personal, while those individuals who came from more traditional and corporate environments were still wary about it all.
The fact is, however, that even the most closely guarded people leave impressions behind, if not in their actual blog posts, then in such public venues as the comments on other blogs, in podcasts, on MySpace and other similar sites, in Flickr pictures (those they upload, those they appear in and the manner in which they appear, and those they choose as favorites), on message boards or business review sites.
Since individuals inevitably reveal more about ourselves than they usually realize, perhaps the answer is in being authentic (yeah, “authenticity” is one of those words that’s been horribly overused lately) instead of posed, plastic or uni-dimensional. This does not mean letting it all hang out. But it does mean not trying to uphold some artificial appearance.
Perhaps it also means being less judgmental about certain things (see Scott Baradell’s post about the attacks on public figures who show human fallibility); recognizing the richness, as Lee Hopkins described, that online communications, despite their limitations and risks, provide us — and our responsibility in this process; and the need to try to make amends when we’ve made mistakes or wronged someone (see Gary Goldhammer’s humorously-written, but with a serious message, Yom Kippur: A Post of Atonement — L’shanah Tova, Gary).
For those of us who have blogs and are heavily involved in social media, their benefits are easily recognizable. Their strength lies in their ability to invite and encourage communication or, as Susan Getgood writes,
“The reason blogs have traction is that they deliver on the promise of the World Wide Web. Everybody *can* be a publisher. That completely changes the equation — the ‘printing press’ is no longer scarce, limited to those with deep pockets.”
Of course, along with that discourse comes risk. As Jeremy Pepper has often said, “if you have a thin skin, you shouldn’t blog.” And he’s right. Sharing ideas, taking positions and defending them against criticism isn’t for the faint of heart. Occasionally what’s written on a blog is even challenged via lawsuit, which Kami Huyse writes about here.
But generally one presumes that challengers, critics or detractors are rational and fair responders, albeit passionate ones. However, the blogging world and other forms of social media also has its unbalanced participants.
Perhaps these individuals are a result of what psychologist John Suler (who also has a blog, The Psychology of Cyberspace) terms the Online Disinhibition Effect:
“It’s well known that people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say or do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel more uninhibited, express themselves more openly. Researchers call this the ‘disinhibition effect.’ It’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes people share very personal things about themselves. They reveal secret emotions, fears, wishes. Or they show unusual acts of kindness and generosity. We may call this benign disinhibition.
On the other hand, the disinhibition effect may not be so benign. Out spills rude language and harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, even threats…. We might call this toxic disinhibition.
On the benign side, the disinhibition indicates an attempt to understand and explore oneself, to work through problems and find new ways of being. And sometimes, in toxic disinhibition, it is simply a blind catharsis, an acting out of unsavory needs and wishes without any personal growth at all.
What causes this online disinhibition? What is it about cyberspace that loosens the psychological barriers that block the release of these inner feelings and needs? Several factors are at play. For some people, one or two of them produces the lion’s share of the disinhibition effect. In most cases, though, these factors interact with each other, supplement each other, resulting in a more complex, amplified effect.”
Suler then outlines several factors in detail:
You Don’t Know Me (dissociative anonymity)
You Can’t See Me (invisibility)
See You Later (asynchronicity)
It’s All in My Head (solipsistic introjection)
It’s Just a Game (dissociative imagination)
We’re Equals (Minimizing Authority)
Suler’s article certainly sheds light on the inappropriate behavior occasionally seen online and is therefore well worth the read.
The recent verbal sparring between Six Apart president Mena Trott and backstage.bbc.co.uk’s Project Lead Ben Metcalfe at the Les Blogs 2.0 Conference has hit a massive nerve among bloggers. A Technorati search for “Ben Metcalfe” reveals 400 posts. I won’t comment on what happened at Les Blogs since I wasn’t there, but I admit I’m glad that civility – and the absence thereof – is a hot topic again. While it’s true that definitions of what’s considered civil behavior vary based on environment, personal values and cultural norms, it’s indisputable that incivility takes its toll. This might be a good time to re-read an older, but still relevant, article on workplace civility. It contains good ideas applicable to many settings.