For our kids’ sake, more than accountability online, pls

Trolling, flaming, and cyberbullying are not the norm online, so – though accountability is important – we need to reach for a higher goal.

By Anne Collier

Maybe Plato was wrong. Or maybe he just frames the challenge we face in promoting digital citizenship and weakening the disinhibition factor online. A thoughtful opinion piece about online trolling, mean comments, flaming, etc. in the New York Times reports that, “even in the fourth century B.C., Plato touched upon the subject of anonymity and morality in his parable of the ring of Gyges. That mythical ring gave its owner the power of invisibility, and Plato observed that even a habitually just man who possessed such a ring would become a thief, knowing that he couldn’t be caught…. Without accountability for our actions,” argues the writer, Julie Zhuo, a product design manager at Facebook, “we would all behave unjustly.” Really? Everybody? That is such a dark view of humanity. Not that accountability isn’t important. And I do think Facebook’s real-name culture helps keep things civil (though obviously doesn’t guarantee civility) on the site. But we need to have a higher goal than mere accountability, one that’s just as protective of online communities and their participants, if not more: Call it stakeholdership, citizenship, community awareness, digital efficacy as well as literacy, a sense that our actions count – not just that we’re held accountable for them. Parents have had the goal of raising people with those sensibilities since long before the advent of the Internet. Now these sensibilities are not only needed more than ever, for everybody’s sake, they’re protective of those who have them. The Net’s disinhibition effect is, I think, calling on us to revisit the importance of ethics and citizenship (offline as well as online).

The goal is not to turn around a dark place called the Internet or the social Web. I hope you don’t see it as such. I don’t. The research doesn’t show it as such. The goal is to reinforce some things that are already present in the vast majority of the human race, including its children: kindness, civility, and a desire to do good.

Sure it may take time for everyone to see that’s the social norm online, so let’s get going! We have some catching up to do; there has been too much representation of online youth as potential victims. Certainly it can help get us there to do what New York Times commentator Zhuo describes as “rein[ing] in bad behavior by promoting accountability.” These are good suggestions: “Content providers, stop allowing anonymous comments. Moderate your comments and forums [note she says "moderate," not "police]. Look into using comment services to improve the quality of engagement on your site. Ask your users to report trolls and call them out for polluting the conversation.” But that’s all ultimately to strengthen the sense of community in online spaces – the guild effect that’s protective (see how here). But in addition to requiring things of our online service providers, let’s help our children and each other see that what we’re dealing with online is not comments, text messages and avatars on a screen but fellow human beings and community members.

Related links

* “Social norming: So key to online safety”
* This on why it’s important to recognize that bullying and cyberbullying are not the norm, from my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid in CNET
* “Why digital citizenship’s a hot topic (globally)”

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