The ‘Era of Behavior’ online too, of course

By Anne Collier

Today’s growing connectivity – including keeping it safe and productive – is only partly about technology. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman applies Conservation International’s “Lost there, felt here” to global economics, as in “Lost in Athens, felt in Berlin. Lost on Wall Street, felt in Iceland.” The same goes for families, school communities, virtual worlds, texting friends, classrooms, wikis, World of Warcraft guilds, etc. – it doesn’t matter if it’s online or offline or whether there’s even a digital device involved. It’s the ever deeper interconnectivity of our shrinking planet that is making this the Era of Behavior (declared by the CEO of a company that reportedly helps other companies in 120 countries “build ethical cultures”). In other words, actions in one part of a community affect conditions in other parts of it, as well as the community as a whole (see “Collaborative reputation protection”). I think this is the case online even more than offline.

However, not only is it becoming “harder to shield yourself from the other guy’s irresponsibility” – as Friedman put it, suggesting that “both he and you had better become more responsible” – what I see is that it’s becoming harder to shield ourselves from (or get away with) our own irresponsibility! It’s not only altruistic to be civil and ethical toward others in peer groups, wikis, and classrooms, it’s enlightened self-interest too. Civility, respect – good citizenship – are protective, especially online (and clearly increasingly offline), against everything from harassment to guilt by association (being associated with bad actors in one’s peer group or community). Research shows this: the 2007 finding in Archives of Pediatrics that aggressive behavior online increases the aggressor’s risk.

Friedman goes on to explain the difference between “situational values” (“I do whatever the situation allows”) and “sustainable values” (or maybe sustaining values) that, by supporting civil, respectful behaviors, help to “sustain our relationships with one another, with our communities, with our institutions, and with our forests, oceans and climate.” The online-youth-risk research lines up with this, indicating to me that, as we increasingly focus local, national, and international discussions about cyberbullying and other online risks on sustaining values – and less on control technologies or tough laws and policies – both individuals and communities will be safer online and offline (if only because less reliance on faulty technology and policy makes us think more), and we’ll be turning mere users into stakeholders and citizens. [See also this about “the guild effect” and “Formspring: What’s going on around it.”]

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