This week ‘trolling’ seems to have taken the leap from societal irritant to public safety issue.
It’s interesting when an ongoing, underlying problem that’s been around for a decade suddenly leaps onto the front pages. It’s almost as if an entire community of journalists are looking for an consistent, predictably occurring issue to report on that requires no research other than a quick glance at their Twitter streams…and, oh yes, it’s August…
What I find interesting about this debate is that it seems to be another staging post in the decline of ‘internet exceptionalism’ – the idea that the online world is somehow different to the real world, and brings with it its own rules and culture.
One part of this is an ongoing technical debate about ‘what Twitter is’ – is it a conversation in the pub, a scrawl on the toilet door or a newspaper you read to pass the time – and what is the legal status of all of these elements. I remember an impassioned debate in the office around this in the age of ‘Giggs-gate’, and the conversation doesn’t seem to have been satisfactorily resolved (though Lord MacAlpine has done a good job of embarrassing a few people who deserve to be embarrassed.)
However, to me the interesting element to this new trolling debate is the undercurrent that ‘something should be done about it’. By its nature, this statement really means ‘someone else should do something about it, with little input from me other than righteous anger.’ And ‘someone’ tends to be an amorphous blend of the Government, large corporations and the police.
This to me is a sign that the Internet is now clearly finishing its first phase, its ideological younger years. The whole concept of networked information was predicated on the idea that there is no ‘someone else’ – that all users should take responsibility for the processing power, data, cost and evolution of the shared network.
This personal responsibility survived beyond the initial days of computer scientists in California and Washington and predominated in the early days of the consumer Internet too. Trolling of one form or another has been around a long time but the assumption was that it was everyone’s job to ridicule, report an moderate abusive and irritating behaviour on the internet, much in the way that you would (hopefully) pick up litter in the park. The whole point was that for the first time we had a space that wasn’t edited, or curated, but was a common playground for us to freely share views.
This ideology burns strongly in some of the smaller, healthier, more culturally homogenous communities online, and of course the continuing wave of ‘information martyrs’ that are reinventing the global security debate. But the sense of collective responsibility online seems not to have survived the transition to large, mass usage, highly commercialized community spaces.
This may be inevitable – it may simply reflect the fact that vibrant cultures struggle to survive under the weights of mass participation and IPO’s built on personal data.
However, before we heckle our own freedoms of speech out of existence, I think it’s worth stopping to think about what we might be giving up. And also to retain the sense of perspective that when we look at a bank of headlines about the evils of the Internet, that they are being carried by newspapers…which is slightly analogous to shaping your feelings about Christmas based on the opinions of turkeys.
Consciously or unconsciously, when classic editorial media outlets are writing any story about digital media businesses, they are writing about their commercial competitors, and any good Marxist would warn you of the dangers there. Though of course the irony is that there is nothing you can do to drive time spend on Twitter than to ignite a conversation about Twitter.
There is no doubt that in order to maximize the sustainability of these communities as self-sustaining communities rather than editorial media then we as users need more user control. This means better tools – to moderate our communities, and to manage our data. But to paraphrase…I totally condemn your decision to be an idiotic, abusive, irritating troll, but I will fight at least fairly hard to defend your right to do it.