by Richard Ramos
The Internet is still as raucous a global community as it should be. However, in the bid for total digital freedom, many people are forgetting that with freedom comes responsibility – even in online communities.
So where do people make mistakes, what makes people cross the line from espousing freedom, to being abusive Internet trolls? Well, it’s not actually a simple situation.
Fighting the “Man”
One important facet of the issue about freedom of speech and human rights online is that it serves as a release-valve for social pressures. The online world is where people now take their soapbox issues and grievances, be it legitimate or not. In that way, it is actually a sort of social equalizer, in that as long as you have access, it does not matter if you are rich or poor. You have a voice, and that is very important.
Order and chaos
Some people have also taken to the idea that the online world, be it the blogosphere or the multitude of forums and social media platforms, are places where stifling rules can be ignored, so you can be free to say what you want. In a certain sense, this works, as it is almost a given that people of like minds will come tighter and form their groups online, regardless of real-life distance from one another. However, the idea of having self-regulation can backfire on itself.
This is most obvious in the case of people who come into online groups and do what they want, but when they are told there are rules, will get angry and say that they are being oppressed.
Aside from issues of self-regulation and rebellion, one thing that the online world does guarantee (and guarantee well, if you are very careful) is anonymity. You can be someone else, or you can simply be anonymous. On one end, this can mean that some people can maintain their identity as it is in real life. However, some people even create what are practically brand new personalities for themselves for when they interact with others online.
All these factors can come together to create a perfect storm online when it comes to the issue of freedom and responsibility. It’s all based on the greatest strengths of the internet – access, expression, and anonymity – also being its great weaknesses.
The extreme online denizens are those who are considered trolls. Now, for people who think that all trolls are the same, well, be prepared for the fact that they are not.
Some trolls have goals or agendas, and their manner of disrupting what could be considered as an ordered discourse may, in fact, have a meaning to it. It is possible that they are simply fighting for their own opinion, and happen to be very stubborn about it. For others, the act of trolling is a form of rebellion against the virtual community.
However, other trolls can be driven by an extreme form of whimsy, or by the fact that anonymity allows them to be “horrible people”. These trolls revel in chaos. There is no purpose to it, except for them to be amused, or to see how far they can go before someone takes action. Some trolls can be persistent, haunting a forum or site because it gives them a great amount of laughter, and for some others, they simply follow their own patterns of satisfaction, and leave when things get boring.
Control and restraint
One possible way to handle the issues of online freedom and responsibility is to enforce guidelines that eventually create the online version of self-control, even within the virtual environment. Unfortunately, given the character of the Internet, people who don’t like what they will most likely perceive as another form of authority (and they would actually be right) will go off and make new communities that aren’t “the same” as the one they left due to restrictions on content and manner of communication.
The rising clamor, though, is for the option to have the ability for sites and forums to require identity disclosure without an option for anonymity in the membership rules. As can be expected, this has been condemned as a blow against freedom on the Internet.
Balancing the scales
So how do we keep a proper check-and-balance mechanism between the inherent freedom of the online community, and the responsibility that goes with it? On one extreme end, some people advocate that freedom trumps everything, while the opposite end wants to make it such that anonymity will only become an option, rather than a feature.
For now, the decision lies in the hands of community managers and site owners. It is inevitable that some sites will require non-anonymity, if only to quell what they perceive to be troublemakers. On the other hand, sites will probably end up allowing anonymity, since they know, too, that the best debates can sometimes be made if there is cloak of anonymity.
Should the government step in? Honestly, that is risky at best. What they should be doing is monitoring, but control would probably best be left in the hands of the owners and managers of online communities. Assuming that online activities do not lead to cybercrime or real-life crime, then the government should stay hands-off.
Image by Stian Eikeland from Flickr.com. Used under CC license. Some rights reserved.