Thursday, April 17, 2008

Internet Pathology in the Schools

Regular readers know that I like to collect (if not analyze and comment on) reports of things going so bad in the social world of cyberspace that they may best be described as pathological. I suspect that one of the earliest of those reports involved a (pre-Internet) case of cyber-rape in the pioneering LambdaMOO chat space, which I had discussed in my previous blog and which Julian Dibbell documented in an extended report for The Village Voice entitled "A Rape in Cyberspace: How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit. Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozen Turned a Database into a Society" (subsequently anthologized in Mark Stefik's Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metaphors). Last year was rather a banner year for such reports:

  • In March there was the story about the death threats that Kathy Sierra received on her own blog. One immediate consequence was that Sierra canceled public appearances in which she praised the power of the blogosphere. A more interesting consequence, however, was the revelation of how fumbling the blogosphere became when questions of its own governance were suddenly thrust before it.
  • In April there was the complete trashing of a home in Tacoma, Washington, in response to a fake ad placed on Craigslist.
  • In May the blogosphere was the site of an unfounded rumor about Apple that briefly (fortunately) played havoc with its stock price.

Any Internet evangelists who regard these as minor aberrations from which the Internet would settle back into a less dangerous normative behavior would do well to read the extended article by Gabriel Sherman, published on March 30 and available on the Web site for New York Magazine. (I emphasize that adjective "extended" and hope to God that the article is not too long for the attention space of the average Internet evangelist!) The story begins with students at a prestigious independent school in New York City using Facebook pages to attack a teacher, but it pursues consequences in too many directions to be simply enumerated on this post. The bottom line is that Internet pathology is still with us, that the currency of social norms is on a (continuing) decline, and that one of the few points of alignment between cyberspace and the "real world" is in the undermining of normative behavior by new ways of exercising domination.

I find it somewhat ironic that last night I happened to watch my VTR recording of the Sundance Channel broadcast of Blog Wars, a documentary that focused on the impact on the blogosphere in Ned Lamont's defeat of Joe Lieberman when the former contested the latter in the Democratic primary for Lieberman's seat in the Senate. The basic message was that the blogosphere was where citizens could make a difference in the political process. The message was delivered without ever invoking that epithet of "citizen journalism," concentrating instead on having the ability to write in a space where anyone can read the resulting text. We were even treated to one journalist celebrating the power of writing without editing without quibbling over whether such writing is as "legitimate" as traditional journalism and blithely ignoring that caveat lector has become the primary rule for reading any text on the Internet. Ultimately, the documentary represents the bloggers (from both left and right) as being as articulate as they are sincere in their convictions; and, when one of those bloggers has to confront the egregious impact of one of her posts, the episode rolls off her back and she blithely moves on to her next post (with encouragement from her fellow bloggers).

The world of Blog Wars, like the world depicted in Sherman's article, is a world that lacks intervention in the interest of considering consequences before acting. This may well be normative for what I have called "the world the Internet has made;" but we should all find the prospect of such a norm to be more than a little chilling. It is a world of entropic sociopathy; and, as is the case with any entropic property, the level can only increase. One of the bloggers interviewed in Blog Wars compared the blogosphere to Deadwood, which is fine if you like the pioneering spirit but not so fine when you consider the number of bodies that filled the Deadwood cemetery (or fed Wu's pigs, as the case may be).

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