Wednesday, 19 October 2016

It's a Free World

We live in an incredibly interconnected world. The phrase "It's a Small World" has never been more appropriate.

Image Souce: Parade
Walt Disney with original models for the 'Small World' ride at DisneyLand. Any excuse for a Disney-related image!

If I wanted to, I could have a girls-night in, with friends from America and Australia, over Skype. I could chat, face-to-face with my family in Canada while I was on the train on the way in to work, and information is shared at lightning speed from all points of the globe.

So, when victims of hate speech online are told "Just remove your account", it's not that simple. For better or for worse we now live in an online world, and removing an aspect of your internet life isn't easy for everyone.

I'm one of the last generation who remembers a life without the internet. We got dial-up when I was about fifteen, and I was permitted to use it for about half an hour in the evening, while Coronation Street was on, as it hogged the phone line and meant no one could interrupt my Grandma's viewing. Nowadays I can use the web whenever I wish; at home, on my phone, even at selected London tube stations, and social media is my primary medium: I utilise my channels for everything from keeping tabs on family, connecting with friends across the world, promoting businesses and companies (my job), finding work, etc... If I was to remove one of these channels, I would lose that network that I had built up, and creating a new profile from scratch would make me less visible to the people that I would actually *want* to target.

Image Source: pinterest.com
Online trolls - giving these guys a bad name...

I have, admittedly, never been targeted by online 'trolls', but almost daily stories (both news and from friends) mean that I am aware of the levels, type and content of online abuse, and I have written quite a few times about various aspects of social media and Web 2.0. I was pleased to come across this from The Guardian, which is aiming to open the conversation around the web we want.

I do think it's about time that online activity is taken more seriously. As the world becomes more connected, the boundaries between what is 'real' and what is merely 'online' will become ever more blurred. It's all very well and good saying things like "We need to educate our kids about it", but "our kids" have grown up with this medium, they know it already, and they navigate it a lot better, and with greater ease, than many adults. While that brings it's own problems (teenagers and young adults tend to be less emotionally rational than adults and may take online trolling to heart more than a person in their thirties, for example), I find it telling that many of those convicted for online abuse tend to be of an older generation.

Online trolling from older internet users - who may have started their online lives during their teenage years, twenties, thirties or older - is pretty terrifying. These people wouldn't dare say out loud, in public, around friends, the things that they spew publicly, and it's quite scary that they feel the need to set up an online account to vent their venom anonymously. It's unnerving to think that the thoughts and feelings spouted every day online could be simmering away under the suit of the man opposite you on the tube, the woman at the coffee shop that you share a giggle with in the morning, the group of mums at the school gates.

Image Source: Daily Kos

Even language used in our national newspapers is becoming more and more vitriolic: I heard an argument the other day that the language of print media is becoming more reflective of websites and media channels, in order to appeal to the online generation who are abandoning traditional newspapers in favour of a quick connection and a touch screen. However, seeing those words, terms and headlines whenever we enter a corner-shop or a supermarket reinforces the idea of the normalcy of that language and permits it.

There are many psychological studies on this phenomena: normalising behaviours makes them 'okay', and allows more and more extremes to manifest. We can see examples of this psychological societal reinforcement everywhere we look these days, from politics to pop-culture. Again, I've written many times about the way that media and culture can influence society, and I honestly think it's beyond time that both culture and law-enforcement take online abuse as seriously as they would if someone yelled those threats into a person's face. Because otherwise it will only be a matter of time before that behaviour manifests itself as 'normal' too.


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