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December 18, 2008

Let’s Make Intolerance Intolerable

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As much as I laugh at him and try to convince him otherwise, my father still fears the Internet. He worries that we may not have the best anti-virus/malware/spyware/adware/be aware software. He wants his Internet-roving children to be cautious of predators lurking the Web, searching for vulnerable people. He’s not so naïve that he implores us to unplug ourselves and act out of fear, but he wants us to take care.

With tragedies like Abraham Biggs and Megan Meier, who can blame him? The Web can be a cruel place.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project released The Future of the Internet III report this week. I mentioned it briefly yesterday regarding the forecast for mobile Internet use, but there’s an even more thought-provoking prediction in those pages. When those surveyed were asked if they believe the Internet will advance society’s social tolerance by the year 2020, an overwhelming majority disagreed.

Out of the more than 2000 people surveyed, 55 percent did not think the Internet would help spread social tolerance, about 33 percent thought that it would and the rest did not respond.

The problem of hate-spew on the Web has been well documented. According to Lee Siegel, author of Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, much of the intolerance oozing on the Web comes down to this simple equation (paraphrased from Penny Arcade’s less family-friendly language):

Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fudgewad

This kind of behavior plays out in the physical world, too. Here’s a story for you.

Bruce Clay, Inc. rents out office space in a tidy little business park in Simi Valley, California. We share the building with a number of other businesses and the bathrooms on the second floor serve all the second-floor suites. While in the ladies’ restroom the other day I was appalled by a note that someone had left on the mirror. The note included strong, antagonizing language reprimanding the building’s cleaning crew for a sub-par job.

I never had any problems with that bathroom myself, but even if I did you’d better believe I wouldn’t rail on the hard working maintenance staff of our building who are cleaning our messes in exchange for peanuts. I have a sneaking suspicion that if the author was put face-to-face with her intended audience, she would have made the point more gently.

I’m not blaming the Internet for the problem of society’s intolerance. The same thing happens online — only amplified in an echo chamber for all to hear. In reading the results from the Pew Internet & American Life survey, Geert Lovink, an author, professor and expert on culture, sociology and the Internet, summed it up:

Let’s not overstate the importance of media and communication. The Internet will not change human nature. We know from the twenty or so years of online culture that conflicts are rather accelerated. The Internet is not an ideal platform for tolerance and conflict resolution. There is a lot of distortion on the line. The critical point here is the real-time nature of online communication, which prevents people from reflecting on what they do.

The Internet marketing community has proved it is not immune to the plague of sharp words. But from what I’ve seen, every time a conflict arises, most people eventually make their peace. Let’s try to keep it that way. Everyone has those bad days when they react out of emotions (like pride or disgust) rather than a desire to be a smarter, wiser, bigger person. I’m glad to be part of an industry that’s striving to be a collaborative and supportive community so that even when the mob is lighting their torches I can be proud of where I came from.

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One response to “Let’s Make Intolerance Intolerable”

  1. Kate Morris writes:

    You made me smile tonight Ms. Virginia, thanks.

    Oh and was listening to the radio on my way home from the gym, Cupid Shuffle came on. I immediately thought of SES San Jose. :)



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