The Internet at times can be equally terrifying and beautiful. I’m part of the first generation that grew up entirely with computers, and as far as I can remember it’s been a daily necessity.
As a child of Silicon Valley, I had computers in my Kindergarten class. Even before that I can remember playing educational games like Bookworm and Math Blaster on our PC at home. To say that I can’t imagine a World without computers would be putting it lightly.
I can’t recall the first time I used the internet, but I remember the pains of dial-up well. If I had known then how significant the web would become, I’m sure I would’ve been a lot more impressed. As it was, it seemed to be just a difficult place to find things. Social media didn’t exist, major news aggregators like Reddit hadn’t even been thought of; it truly was the Uncharted West.
Much like the U.S. pioneers, the early builders of the internet were met with equal parts hardship and reward. Many of the billionaires we know today, including the likes of Mark Cuban, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and so many others built their fortunes off of the early web. For all intents and purposes, it was the internet’s version of the Gold Rush, the surge needed to settle the West.
Once the Wild Web was “charted” so to speak, it was time for the second wave. The settlers, the social web. With a rapid rise and fall, Myspace, which later withered in the shadow of Facebook, set in motion the events which led to the internet we know today.
What started at Colleges, soon spread to High Schools, then your neighbors, relatives, teachers, etc. It was a viral movement before we described things in those terms. And we saw that it was good.
What once was a quiet landscape had become a bustling noisy city. I look back at my Facebook statuses from 5 years ago and it was a different place. Pictures were few and far between, videos even more so. Text was king, and statuses ranged from an insightful quote to a passive-aggressive rant. You could say that I’m biased towards written word, but the engagement level with others was noticeably different as well.
Somewhere in the mix we lost some of that, but gained a concept of power. One bad review on Yelp can wreak havoc on a struggling restaurant, so companies better appease us. Those $10 headphones died after you misused them and the company didn’t refund you? They’ll be sorry after I smear them on Twit-Face-tagram or whatever’s popular these days. We are consumers and we demand to be heard!… sorry, sarcasm has a habit of not translating well over the internet.
What started as a quiet hum had become an assembly of individuals trying to yell over each other, but at least we had a voice.
Historian and politician John Acton once said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, and I have to agree based on no other experience than the progression I’ve seen with social media. Once we could hear ourselves above the drone of corporations, we realized our new found power could be leveraged for our personal opinions as well.
If you’ve never heard of the term Doxing before, it’s a kind of activism where people on the internet scour for snippets of your personal information and post it for others. If you remember a few months ago when reporters were outraged with Uber, it was because a high placed exec of the company was encouraging doxing of journalists criticizing the company. It might not sound all that serious, but it’s more than just sifting Facebook for embarrassing comments. Doxing usually involves posting a person’s home and work address, phone numbers, making calls to their workplace or relatives, and just about any combination of pranks and threats mixed in. Now that you have heard of it, I can almost guarantee you’ll come across the term again within a month.
So you might be asking what kind of things lead to a person getting doxed? The causes vary but most often it’s brought on by an ill-received (e.g. offensive) comment on Social Media. Granted, you might argue that people making racist tweets should prepare for the repercussions. But what about the father who was wrongfully shamed for taking a selfie? Where is his justice?
This kind of mob-mentality is fast becoming commonplace in the bustling city that is social media. The settlers have arrived and they’re looking for “justice”, behind the safety of their glaring screen. This isn’t justice though, this is vigilantism. No, you know what this is? This is bullying.
I find it amusing and disheartening that the same people who might champion for anti-bullying laws are actively committing the same moral failure during their nightly Facebook sessions. Maybe you side with them, thinking “That’s not bullying, it’s punishing the offensive, they deserve it”. Let me ask then, don’t most bullies feel justified? Do you think there’s many that think “I’m a terrible person to this innocent kid and he doesn’t deserve it”? I honestly doubt it. So what’s the difference? That the person offended you? I’m sorry, but, who made you the judge?
Ah right, this isn’t a “punishment fits the crime” scenario, It’s a vigilante mob. The problem with people, and the reason we rely on courts and judges and juries to help decide fairness, is that we are far too emotional. We get mad, really mad, at something as dumb as a poorly written joke, and decide “that’s it, I want their head on a platter”, before considering whether being offensive is even a crime.
So where does that leave us? Here’s my prediction.
The internet is a powerful force of nature. It will grow, in large part just as society has grown, with bigger “cities” and faster “highways”. This vigilante bullying will ruin lives, some for cause and others simply as accidental fallout, but that won’t change it. Some sites will try to deter it, like Reddit defining “harassment” for it’s user base, but it will be a speed bump in the scheme of things. With each ruined life we inch closer to an Internet paved with laws. With each vigilante mob we lose our right to an anonymous web, perhaps for good reason. Maybe we can’t be trusted to that kind of absolute power, on the Western Frontier or the World Wide Web.
I’m sure it will come as a shock when I tell my future kids how open the Internet was when it first came about. “Those were different times,” I’ll say, with a half frown across my face. “We were free, we were anonymous, it was beautiful”.
Too bad we lost it.