Hoping for better Web civility in 2015

In looking through some collected links from the last year, I found that this one, dating back from February and posted on the Harvard Kennedy public policy journal website, sums up so much of what I’ve been thinking lately about the digital world.

Australian graduate psychology student Claire Lehmann bemoans the culture of easy outrage on the Web, and how this supposedly ideal collaborative realm has become a forum to deepen already sharp ideological differences:

“In an era in which social media provides the fuel for partisanship, online platforms are monetizing the flames. But they are also burning the bridges between us. We seem to have fewer shared goals. Our most pressing moral challenges are ones which require creative, long-term solutions of cooperation and commitment. Globally and locally, we face environmental calamities, rising economic inequality, and ageing populations. The need for bipartisan solutions has never been stronger.

“Reinforcing bitterness between groups of people by invoking indignant outrage may be a good business strategy for online news outlets, but it is terrible for encouraging the social cohesion required to address problems facing our society . To foster cross-pollination of ideas, we need both to be aware and to listen. We should endeavor to avoid joining online digital mobs where we might throw verbal stones at anyone who may disagree with us. Ideally, we would consume a balance of information that both comforts us by adhering to our world-view and challenges us by expanding it.”

This is not a new concern, but I haven’t read a better expression of what for many, myself included, have found to be a frustrating, dispiriting development.

After nearly seven years of actively using social media, I dropped off significantly in my participation in the past year. The ability to quickly connect, converse and share information with people I find interesting and engaging was diminished by others seeking to demonize those with differing points of view, or who link to the “wrong” thing.

Perhaps I need to alter whom I follow — there are far too many people I follow who post frequently, and at times nastily, about politics. That’s not why I follow them, even if I may agree with them. It’s cable news come to my timeline, and it’s an unwanted intrusion.

Depending on the issue — and especially if it involves race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion and political philosophy — one is essentially drummed into silence if the social media mobs declare a certain view to be incorrect. The cultural topics that help define who we are as humans have become bristling ideological and political vehicles, instead of entry points for understanding through respectful argument.

One of the pleasures of adopting to digital media has been the ease of hashing out points on which we may not agree. I’ve been a guest on the sports-and-culture podcast of writer Michael Tillery, whose program is housed on the RAPStation website. I don’t care for rap at all and Michael and I disagree on some of the things we talk about, and Tweet at one another. But I appreciate the chance to think out loud and not be flogged out of reflex.

There’s nothing like a vigorous, but civil debate. While social media, especially Twitter, isn’t perfect for this, some enlightening discussion has been possible. I’ve enjoyed it, in spite of its limitations.

But if mobsters want to disrupt that dialogue — and it’s troubling how many of them call themselves journalists, writers, artists, academics and intellectuals — it’s far easier to do that, and rudely troll someone they don’t follow, or who doesn’t follow them.

So whenever big news came down — a Supreme Court ruling, the Ferguson demonstrations, a mass shooting or allegations of a gang rape — I logged out. I suspect I wasn’t alone.

It’s just not worth it to engage in any kind of meaningful discussion of hot-button issues, at least openly on social media. I’m not afraid of having my own views challenged; if anything I want to learn what I don’t know, or what my blind spots are.

But it’s best doing so in other venues, including blogs and podcasts and offline conversation. Despite its many positives, social media is no match for old-fashioned face-to-face talk, or a phone call, or a thorough vetting through the written word.

Besides, I’m not any good at responding to the mobs. I don’t have the jugular for it. I admire those who do, such as blogger extraordinaire Andrew Sullivan. He recently pegged a fierce defense of his tenure as editor of The New Republic, and its contrarianism that offends many liberals, following an attack from leading black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.

While Coates seems eager to banish even discourse about views he doesn’t like, Sullivan loves the free-range, interactive exchange of ideas that the Web makes possible. On his blog, The Dish, he exemplifies it like few others

“The role of journalism is not to police the culture but to engage in it.”

Sullivan’s Enlightenment-oriented desire to let all views be aired, and then see where the debate goes, is being eclipsed by an authoritarian sensibility that’s getting stronger in the digital world, and on social media in particular.

This growing force of the culture police wants nothing to do with engagement. They are on the left and the right, and this leaves the rest of us feeling as we do about politics — left out of the conversation, browbeaten into withholding our views. Especially if they are more nuanced and complicated than the mob can handle.

Like Lehmann, I fret that the mainstream media will continue to traffick in such divisive fare, and that the onslaught will be far more overwhelming than anything we saw in 2014. That’s saying something.

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