28 May 2007
Shouts and echoes
There have been some situations lately that have got me thinking a lot about the Internet—and communities in general—as a megaphone for personal communication.
I’ve watched a number of public incidents unfold where things have been said in blogs or online communities that by any measure of discretion should have stayed private. Some of them have affected me more personally than others, but they’ve all been unfortunate for the people involved and made more so by a reaction from the community that got out of control.
I’ve been trying to work out what it is about this pattern that’s bothered me so much. I really like personal writing on the web. I think writers who put very personal stories out there (Paul Ford comes to mind, but there are countless others) are brave and I admire them. The results can be fascinating and heartbreaking, but they can also be dangerous.
When you tell a story to a friend or even a stranger in person, there’s something message-appropriate about the medium. It’s a personal story delivered personally. And we’re accountable in person for what we say in person.
That’s one of the reasons personal writing for a wider audience (whether it’s in books or on the web or somewhere else) is so powerful. It’s out of place. It’s a hint of intimacy with someone we don’t know. By nature it’s a little voyeuristic, but done well, it’s extremely powerful. And with great power (of course) comes great responsibility. Whether you asked for it or not.
When real people are involved, things get messy. There’s a reason the old saw about the author who writes a bestseller about his former lover keeps making it into romantic comedies and dime novels, and the author is never the hero(ine). There’s something more than a little bit creepy about someone winning support and acclaim by airing their side of the story of a failed personal relationship with another human being. We’re fascinated, but at the same time, we’re horrified to imagine the same thing happening to us.
The unfair thing about one-sided stories isn’t that they’re lies, it’s that we tend to make ourselves the heroes of our own stories. Stories are populated with heroes and villains, but real life isn’t. We should know from our own experiences that it’s never as simple as it sounds. But the real power of a well-told story is that it makes us want to believe it.
Community is a big word these days, and open communication is a critical component of a good community. But it’s a mistake to treat openness as an end unto itself. It’s a principle in service of something bigger. The only way it works is when the individuals who make up the community exercise personal discretion based on a shared understanding of what is OK to be open and what isn’t. When that understanding is violated, or misjudged, or never established in the first place, people get hurt.
There’s a fine line between openness and indiscretion. When the community’s demand for openness trumps the privacy of the individual, something human has been sacrificed. When a community fails to protect the humanity of its members, it loses the one thing that knits it together, that makes it a positive force.
There’s a phenomenon that I’ve seen play itself out in online discussions—let’s call it the “echo effect”—where affirmative responses seem to breed more affirmative responses. For each comment in agreement with the original post, the probability that the next comment will be in agreement appears to increase. Hundreds of comments in favor of an accusation don’t make it true, but the momentum makes it a lot easier to make a snap judgment without really understanding the facts. Usually, after a certain point in these kind of threads, any questioning responses get shouted down in favor of the momentum of a foregone conclusion.
This isn’t unique to the Internet, and taken in light of human nature, it’s not even particularly surprising. But a group of people with a shared sense of outrage is a powerful and dangerous thing. It has the power to set momentum toward powerful positive change, and it has the power to do the very ugly opposite. Once the momentum starts in either direction, it’s hard for anyone to change its course.
The point I’m trying to make here is that it’s not enough to be accountable for what we say in public, we’re responsible for the repercussions of saying it. If I accuse someone by name in the public square and the mob attacks him on my word while I stand by, I’m not preserving community, I’m undermining it. And because I instigated, alone, I’m the one responsible for the consequences. I don’t get a pass for openness.
It’s sad how situations like this seem to bring out the worst aspects of community, even amidst the promise of these nascent digital connections. The nature of community, in whatever form, is that it magnifies our own individual natures. We can be happy villagers sharing our labors or we can be townspeople with pitchforks and torches. It’s in us to be both. We have to watch ourselves, and look out for each other.
We’re all just driving in our cars, flipping each other off and cussing each other out when we get cut off. Imagine doing that to someone in the grocery store, or at work. The Internet hides us just like our cars, and it helps keep us detached from the fact that there are real people on the other end, not the morons or villains it’s convenient for us in our outrage to invent.
My friend Rob said it this way, and I couldn’t find a way to put it better, so I’ll leave it as is:
The project needs to be to start expressing ourselves the way we would if we were standing in a room together—in physical presence—where we’d be embarrassed to talk out of turn or sound like an ass. The technology will probably never do that for us. We need to be willfully aware.