Monday, June 05, 2006

MySpace ends where your nose begins

The internet is often described as a dangerous place, and it certainly can be. Just as we hear very little news about all of the good that our soldiers are doing in Iraq, there is little to be said about the benefits of so much information availability to anyone “connected”. From banking to special-interest groups to online gaming, to finding out which blank CD-RW’s will work with my recorder, it’s all there. Part of living in any society is development of the skill of discernment – veracity seems to be hidden, even in fast-food restaurant ads. Which brings me to today’s topic. How do we teach “netiquette”?
Parents, school districts, and individuals are struggling with naughty, derogatory, nasty, and even inciting information from their children online – another battle between the lines of free speech, bad behavior, and personal safety and security. (Mostly) Teens text-message each other with alarming speed these days; there are even sites where one can post ratings and dating experiences for others to judge; adults too. “Kiss and tell” has taken on yet another dimension.
I carry on online “conversations” on a daily basis with people that I’ve never met physically. These sorts of conversations, for me, began on BBS systems, pre-internet “bulletin boards” quite a while ago , initially inhabited by uber-geeks (and I are one), soon expanding to topics like religion and politics. This is where I learned my first lessons about online behavior. In nearly twenty years of participation and observation, I have not seen anyone’s ideas, philosophy, or salvation change as a result of anything posted in a “religion” thread. I have seen a lot of arguing, name-calling, mis-communication, and hurt feelings resulting from them, but no movement of any significance. As a participant in the communities I frequent, I have learned that it is almost too easy to be taken in an emotional direction by someone that was never intended, and it is so very easy to then fire off a reply filled with righteous indignation. These posts inevitably fester and foster those with an opinion on either side of “the issue” – real, unintended, or not – and can bring wave upon wave of heated debate and division to people whose intent was support and mutual interest. What’s lacking is the social infrastructure. People post things on the internet that they would never say in most social settings. When it’s said, there is no restraint inherent in the receiver being there to react, or anyone else, for that matter. There are none of the cues available to the receiver that we take for granted when we are physically together – tone, inflection, body language. Therefore, the context is limited by the rules of the community, the existing (or lack of) relationship between the parties, as well as the context that the receiver is in when the message is read. As a receiver, all of these things have influenced how I’ve read someone’s message, and what is communicated in my direction has not always been clear. I have learned, often requiring apologies, to moderate myself in how as well as what I will react to. As a “Moderator” – one who has the responsibility for maintaining the rules of one such community, I’ve learned to apply some standards to my online behavior, as well as that of others.
So, what’s my beef? It is precisely that we cannot ask our children to do what we do not do, ourselves. I merely have to point you to any recent political campaign advertising you have witnessed. How about “Entertainment Tonight” or “Extra”, or whatever those shows are called? Any negative snippet of information, innuendo, or inappropriate photo of a public personality is rushed to the screen, put out with little regard to context or propriety, and sensationalized to the point of stupidity. My 9 year old realizes the farcical, condescending nature of a political ad that calls a congressional candidate “dangerous”. He will learn, soon enough, that most of the danger in our government comes from the Executive branch, then the Judicial branch, and Congress last, but that’s a lesson for another time.
There has been a lot of attention focused upon MySpace. I signed up at the invitation of an online friend whose husband is in a band. One of the things that has contributed to MySpace’s success is it’s facilitation of local bands; distributing their music and performance dates, etc. I have also seen a great deal of what I would deem inappropriate content in the arena of personal spaces, but that’s because I’m a middle-aged married man uh, “not seeking”, as it were. It’s another aspect of the community. There are some things to note, here. First, I deem myself mature enough to control my own behavior. Second, I do not access MySpace when my children are around. Third, I would not allow my son to have a MySpace account. Fourth, I monitor his activity (and he is young enough and so far smart enough – through talking with him as well as monitoring his activity) to not want to go to places like this. We had a conversation just last night at dinner regarding a Nickelodeon game site that was interactive to a point that he’d never been before, and it was an opportunity to discuss “netiquette” with him some more. I expect this dialogue to continue, of course.
I suspect that this is not the case in these households where teenagers are posting abusive information about their schoolmates. Different school districts and even individual schools have reacted to this sort of behavior in different ways. It is a formidable and new problem to deal with this sort of private behavior that affects a public community. I agree that it is a problem, however I think that suppressing the medium is not the answer. It is a matter of personal accountability; and therefore a parental responsibility. Children, particularly teenagers, have always found the means to group themselves and ostracize others. When it interferes with the educational process, and even causes damage to another person, it should be dealt with, and parents need to be held liable for minors’ actions in this realm, as well. Some new paradigms for internet speech and behavior by minors as it applies to the educational environment need to be developed, without dissembling their First Amendment rights to criticize ideas or even institutions. That is a critical part of our educational process that needs to be held a little dearer, as far as I’m concerned.
What’s the answer to the larger, societal problem, then? I don’t know. I vote with my remote control and with posts like this. Like those religion threads, I don’t necessarily think I’m changing anyone’s mind, I’m interested in keeping the dialogue alive in your head, as we all make decisions about what we view and popularize. Many of these lines regarding freedom and responsibility are being re-drawn, and we need to be talking more about how. For many of us, it’s a matter of what we type, to whom, and about what. I hope I’ve given you pause to think about it.