Sunday, 24 February 2008

Why the Internet, as it is now, will never reach its full potential as an agent for social change.

This one got the most votes so far, so I'll start here.

When I heard the news about the Sungnyemun Gate burning down in Seoul, one of the first things I did was go online, to the Korea Times website. After the article write-up, people could post comments.

from, February 11th

Here, uncensored, is what I saw in the comments section. (warning: strong language ahead: if you don't like bad words, look to the right.)

Readers Comments
(interestingly, commenters had their IP addresses listed after their usernames. . . more on that later.)

ultrakorean (
02-11-2008 07:45
Even the white american losers have been immigrants

ProudKorean (
02-11-2008 07:43
The U.S. is, like 50 times the size of SK, yet it whines about how little room is left to take anymore foreigners or immigrants in, while pressuring SK to let in more and more, including the U.S.' own unemployed or unemployable (white) losers. Go figure.

ultrakorean (
02-11-2008 07:40
the (white) foreigners should go home, fast.

ProudKorean (
02-11-2008 07:38
When (white) America lets foreigners in, it's to exploit them as cheap labor to subsidize the whites, at every level. When (white) Americans come to Korea as foreigners, it's to suck the blood of Koreans, as the great (white) masters.

ultrakorean (
02-11-2008 07:34
All of the wannabe English teachers, keep out. All of you stupid idiots, keep out. All of you Dumb fucks, morons, douchebags and faggots, keep out.

No explanation necessary, I hope.

Everybody loves the internet because everybody has a voice, right? It's, like, you know, the ultimate embodiment of freedom of speech! Anybody can throw in their two bits! We live in the information age! Proudkorean and ultrakorean above especially love it, because they can be as rude as they want, and nobody will know it was them!

Now I've been spending more time on some of the expat in Korea blogs lately, and maybe I'm wrong, but I have a feeling what I'm seeing isn't too abnormal: the amount of negativity, nastiness, pettiness, and just outright rudeness is no longer shocking, but it's really disheartening. People take cheap shots for the sheer fun of doing so, people pose as somebody they aren't, or strike the most offensive posture they can, just to have others respond to their comments (this is called trolling: the commenters above, according to later commenters on that same site, aren't even from Korea -- the IP addresses were from Europe and . . . somewhere else I can't remember. They just posted that racist garbage to bait somebody into reacting. And it worked: later that morning, they were elbow-deep in debate/flame-wars with other netizens. Most of the "debates" went something like this:

Responder: "You're overgeneralizing, and you haven't backed up your assumptions: there are no statistics that prove white English teachers in are more likely than other demographics to be pedophiles."

Ultrakorean: "Go home, you bum-loving, HIV-positive FAG!"

If throwing a wet blanket on my morning jag helps them feel alive, I hope they feel really friggin' validated. As for the people responding to such ignorance, well, you can mud-wrestle a pig, but only one of you's having fun.)

Here is the worst example I ever saw (this is not a typical comment board: this was the one that forced the guy to change his commenting policy -- but it shows how far people will rocket past any line of taste or sensitivity if others react to their poison: it's even less appropriate considering the kick-him-when-he's-down topic of his original post) and its younger brother. Read the comments if you want to lose a little faith in humanity. For the first one, run a search and find where "angrykorean" and "bigchoi" and "troop" start yapping. For the second one, Peter is about the ugliest thing I've ever seen, and probably a "sock" (an id invented by a third user, in order to start a conversation with him/herself, or manipulate a comment thread toward some end).

So basically, the way I see it, there are a few reasons the Internet will never reach its full potential for social change.

1. The first one is the flipside of the democratic nature of the Internet. Anybody can weigh in now, and that's great! The problem is, there is no filter to tell me "This guy never finished high school," "This guy has a masters' degree in this exact topic," and I'm left to fend for myself. The holocaust-denying anti-semite shows up right next to the experienced diplomat on my "Gaza Strip" search results, and even if the analysis does have "John Doe, Ph.D." on the byline, I don't know if that Ph.D. is in math or sociology. Yeah, there's a ton of great stuff out there, but it's like a diamond in a vegetable garden: yeah, the diamond's in there, and there's also some other nutritious stuff, but there's also some dirt, some compost, and a fair (stinky) bit of manure, too.

It almost makes me want to go to a bookstore and buy a book or something!

2. If we go with the "most read" or "most sent" stories, we aren't too much farther ahead, because most clicks on the Internet are from people looking for diversion, not edification or education. If I want to find something credible and insightful, where's the resource that will hook me up with it. . . and who makes the decisions about what goes on their recommended reading list? These days, there are a few things like "digg" and "stumbleupon" where you can give a site thumbs-up or thumbs-down, thus recommending it to other users of the service, but because most people use the Internet for diversion, fifty-thousand netizens CAN be wrong -- I don't WANT to see Jennifer Love Hewitt's beach bikini pictures or a video of some guy getting nailed in the crotch by a water-balloon slingshot. In the end, the cost/benefit ratio for the good stuff I do find, compared to the amount of time I usually spend searching out and verifying it, is pretty poor.

3. Too many voices is the same as no voice. Multiplicity without focus becomes white noise.

4. The lowest, ugliest, nastiest commenters set the parameters for the entire discussion. Repeat: it is the stupidest and worst, not the smartest and best comment, that sets the tone for the entire comment board.

In a place like a peer-reviewed journal, because of editors and experts making informed decisions, nothing but the best stuff rises to the top. It's stimulating and challenging to read that stuff. But imagine if The New Yorker had a feedback page where they regularly printed letters saying things like "Alice Munro's short story in the last issue was GAY. GAAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYY!" or somesuch. It becomes difficult to carry on any kind of discourse at all, and it would damage the New Yorker's credibility to publish such tripe. Here's an irreverent but humorous look at how it would sound to have a group of Internet commenters at a board meeting (bad language warning number 2):

Now, webmasters are starting to get more vigilant, and on some sites, you can report harassing comments, as well as giving thumbs up and thumbs down for good or bad comments. Yahoo answers is one community where you'll be booted if you consistently post asinine or inappropriate comments. What else can be done to get these trolls out of my hair?

Yeah, there's that vaunted freedom of speech . . . but that's not freedom to crap on other people's attempt to have a legitimate discussion, or to simply live a normal life. Freedom of speech, famously, does not protect me when I falsely shout, "FIRE!" in a crowded theater. Some people hide behind anonymity to act out their worst impulses. Here in Korea, you MUST enter your ID Number (like your social insurance number) to become a member of most online communities. This happened after a pop star actually committed suicide in part due to vicious online criticism of her career and character. She's not the only one.

Yeah, the hackers won't like it, and will find ways to get around it, I suppose, but I don't mind Korea's policy of attaching your user id to your actual ID number (at least on comment boards, to begin, and maybe also on user-created-content sites, and as long as it's kept private, with clear, well-defined laws about when that information can and can't be released) -- if it's being used to make sure you're not harassing people online, or posting hate, I don't mind that. I mean, it makes things more problematic if I go online to vent my passive-aggressive hate for the world, or if I'm planning to cheat on my wife or buy illicit substances or materials. . . but why SHOULDN'T people have to answer for what they say? I mean, you're still free to have whatever opinion you want, and to express it, but you might have to answer for it, is all.

Other options: I've heard (though I can't find it on the site map) that if someone's just looking for a flame war (flame is the name for those kinds of poisonous, negative comments), there's a comment board on Dave's ESL Cafe intended solely for those trolls, so they can bother no one but each other -- a kind of rock under which they can crawl and meet more of their own. I kind of like this idea- if you get enough thumbs downs, you get sent to the corner, where you can't comment on respectable message boards until you've thought about what you've done. Even with ID attachment, I've seen an interested group hijack a message board: the Jehovah's Witnesses have been known to get on Yahoo Answers and give thumbs downs to anybody representing anything other than JW's, undermining the whole purpose of an open forum, and grinding their own axes. Other religious groups have done the same.

Anyway, the Internet is an amazing medium for communication without borders, and all kinds of social change could come out of that information flow. As an idea, it's revolutionary and amazing. . . except for the large number of jerks who populate it. It's kind of like if half the population of Sydney, Australia (one of the worlds' prettiest cities) were profligate litterers. There ARE people using the Internet to try and make the world a better place (click here. Go to this site every day. You have no reason not to.) However, until the world wide web begins being seen as an agent for social change and connection, and not as an anonymous dumping ground for my frustration at whatever grinds me down, and until there is a reliable mechanism for making sure that the best-informed, most thoughtful and enlightening additions to the information highway reach the most sets of eyes, rather than simply the ones involving nipple-slips and candid bikini shots, the Internet will not reach that potential.

Here's a site that IS trying to make the internet a better place. Self-described as "the youtube of ideas" here's a site that's trying to start discussions about important topics, getting experts to weigh in, and then allowing the average web-user to respond. Yay

NOTE: I do recognize that there are times when anonymity is helpful, even necessary: countries where information is controlled need anonymous interfaces for people to get word out about what's happening, for example political blogs in China, or reports during the military crackdown in Burma/Myanmar. Even when the little guy is taking on a powerful organization, as in the group "Anonymous"'s assault on the church of Scientology (which has a history of suppressing exposure of their, um, controversial aspects, with litigation -- search "anonymous vs. scientology" on youtube to learn about an interesting Internet meme. If anonymity is being used to pass on important, or controlled information, I love it. . . but too often, it's being used as a mask behind which I can act like an asshole instead. How do we filter out important anonymity from jerk anonymity?

And there's the dilemma in its essence, I suppose. I wish there were a way that ordinary web users could marginalize the ogres, though, and help nudging that cream, so that it rises to the top.


tamie said...

Yay! Democracy wins. Thanks for writing this blog. I especially like what you said about the multiplicity of voices without focus being just white noise. Yep. Thanks for a good post, a thought-provoking read.

DeWitt said...

Very very ironic and a bit scary that I picked one of your posts to read at length and comment on ... and my sister beat me to it. I'm actually a bit disturbed by that.

Okay, you obviously have done your research here. I would agree with you that the internet leaves too many doors open.

The thing is that the real world does that too. My father-in-law says that he won't read wikipedia because anyone can go on there and write whatever they want. Guess what? That can happen with physical books too. It does. Things get called facts that are wrong and either no one cares or no one knows or the people who know and care can't do anything about it.

I think the internet just makes painfully obvious something that all of our degrees and certifications have attempted to hide for the past two hundred years, viz. that for all the certifications in the world we are all just people. Knowledge and more importantly wisdom and good judgment are rather unquantifiable. Human behavior is only predictable insofar as it is unpredictable and often neurotic. And accountability is only as good as the people who are supposed to be vigilant.