You should go read this excellent post on Technosociology, which makes two points, one that I’ve written about before and one that I’ve been meaning to write. The first is a rebuke to the free speech fetishists of the internet who regard their ability to shout at someone as an absolute right rather than a responsibility.
…the common equation between not wanting governments to regulate offensive speech on the Internet and the position “therefore everyone should be allowed to post whatever they want” is not just wrong, it is likely going to be the end of the kind of free speech we want to protect because sooner or later, most governments who do want to ban speech on the Internet for political reasons are going to be able to legitimately point at these sites and most parents and other sane people will come down for strong regulations on the Internet. Yes, I believe that these regulations will then be used to crack down on “unwanted” political speech but be assured that most people in the world, including the United States, will choose “less speech” criticizing the powerful if they are convinced that without such restrictions, there is no way to stop predation of children and violating women’s dignity and privacy from proliferating on mainstream sites. (There is high-quality poll data from the General Social Survey which confirms this–free speech as an absolute value is a minority position in the United States). It is up to the Internet community to make this a false equivalence and this requires that “but it’s free speech” is not the first, intermediate and last and only phrase we utter when faced with offensive or intimidating content.
The internet has an abundance of freedoms and a dearth of accountability and responsibility. Somehow we’ve acquired the notion that because it’s possible to create throw-away accounts and use pseudonyms, it is therefore good to create them at will and discard any sense of identity while still pretending to be a good faith contributor to online discussions. And then we get people who are outraged that you won’t listen to them when they rant under an obscene pseudonym that they will change again when you ignore them; and in fact, they get particularly outraged when you do ignore them, because they think they have the right to speak while everyone else has the obligation to listen. The petty obsessives of internet free speech all have a bit of Dennis Markuze in them.
And further, the Violentacrez case has highlighted another mistaken idea: their privilege to abrogate all other rights held by others in the name of their right to free speech. Suddenly, anonymity also becomes their right and no one else’s — they can splatter the faces of teenagers in their underwear on the web to serve their right to masturbation material, but if you dare to reveal that they are human beings with identities in the “real” world, you’re violating their rights.
That’s the second thing I appreciate in this essay. It’s time to stop thinking of stuff we say on the internet as somehow not part of the real world. For many of us, the bulk of our communication with others is through this medium; we have more friends who we know well and talk to regularly here on our screens than we meet face-to-face.
Another variant of the argument has been that “it’s just the Internet.” Chill. This, of course, rests of on something I’ve long been railing against, the notion that the Internet is somehow not real, that it’s virtual or that it is “trivial.” (My friend Nathan Jurgenson coined the phrase “digital dualism” to refer to this tendency). In fact, a reddit contributor makes the argument that Gawker, by publishing the real name and location of the person behind “creepshot” did real harm they have “purposefully taken this off the internet and into real life” and this affects “violantacrez’s future employment and immediate safety.”
“JoelDavis” on Reddit: The reason that axiom [It’s Just the Internet] has taken hold is because the idea is that even if a website gets bogged down in even the worst trolling imaginable, all you have to is realize the website’s no longer worth going to anymore and stop going. Problem solved. With this, a formerly anonymous reddit user has to worry about physical attacks in real life by someone who would view a person like that as a target. In other words, Adrian Chen has purposefully taken this off the internet and into real life so it’s no longer “just the internet.” This affects violentacrez’s future employment and immediate safety. All so Chen could make some money, and no other reason.
This snippet is very revelatory in how it reveals how the construction of what is real, trivial or virtual is indeed an assertion of power & privilege. “JoelDavis” considers predatory photos of children to be “just the Internet” but a person’s name –just their name linked to real acts they committed—to be “real life.” (I again refer to Lili’s great post about what this reveals).
It’s an odd phenomenon, too. When the printing press allowed newspapers to appear, when people sent correspondence around the world through the mail, did anyone suggest that this process was insignificant and that the discussion was less “real” than talking? I don’t think so. I have the opposite impression, that people felt that writing made the ephemera of conversation have more substance and permanence — the act of weighing words carefully and making the effort to lay them down in print made them more powerful, and publication was a conjuration of great power.
The internet made publication trivial. It apparently diminished the substance of communication — no more crackling bits of paper that pile up on your desk. Media like twitter and facebook encourage you to blurt casually, with little attention to the words you write. It leads to the illusion that communication online is as insubstantial as the conversation you had with your cat.
But it isn’t. In the vast howling noise of the internet, what you say has become more important — voices that babble and shriek don’t rise to prominence and become regular draws (they can be brief freak show sensations, though, and we do see a tendency for voices of minimal talent or intelligence striving to become louder through more extreme viciousness or stupidity). Because something is written in the intangible pattern of electrons doesn’t make it less substantial, but instead makes it easier to distribute, copy, and archive — you could burn an incriminating letter, but once it is on the internet, it is spread far and wide and, while not completely unerasable, is harder to remove…and actively trying to remove something tends to make it more noticeable and more widely disseminated. Meanwhile, I’m finding hardcopy to be less useful — I get dunned with so much junk mail, all those crackling bits of paper that offer me new credit cards at low low rates and advertisements for big screen TVs on sale and sweepstakes I must enter to win millions of dollars, that I increasingly devalue stuff that is written down. I used to photocopy journal articles every week and file them away in a cabinet — I’ve still got a huge pile of these things from 20-30 years ago — but now I rarely print anything, it’s far more useful to have a searchable, indexable, archived PDF that I can also instantly email to students and colleagues.
Just because some old fogies don’t comprehend or appreciate the volume and content of all the communication that goes on by this medium doesn’t make it less real. The internet is not the place where a billion ghosts chatter over matters of no consequence — it’s the new reality, the tool that many of us use to make connections that matter. It’s the greatest agent of information and communication humanity has yet invented, and it deserves a little more respect than dismissal as something “unreal” where trolls can roam unchecked.
(via Stephanie Zvan)