What has happened to the internet? In the early days, one’s access to this new technology opened up a world of wonder, excitement and enjoyment. Perhaps you remember AOL in the mid 1990s, logging onto the portal with your 28.8k modem with the familiar greeting of “Welcome to AOL”. You could chat with people in real-time around the world. It was something you’d never experienced before and it amazed you there were people on their computers thousands of miles away interacting with you. It was just a chatroom, an ancient relic compared to today’s live-streaming technology, but it left many of us in awe. The sense of awe continued as one explored the World Wide Web. You’d tell people of the information you’d found by making a quick search. All you needed to do was turn on your computer, connect to the internet and you’d have thousands upon thousands of articles at your fingertips on any area of interest. No book, magazine or newspaper needed!
Online gaming had a similar impact. Injecting internet connectivity into the world of gaming transformed analogue-based competition into a world of possibility, eventually giving rise to the eSports industry. Google came along and we noticed how search results were so much more relevant compared to the results provided by Yahoo!, Altavista, Hotbot, Lycos and other search engines at the time. And then Facebook. You could connect with people you hadn’t seen or heard from in years.
But somewhere along the way this excitement and wonder was replaced by new associations. What do we think of when we think of the internet? On one side we think of potential and capabilities. On the other side we can’t help but notice the toxicity and division.
While the overwhelming majority of people feel the internet has been a net positive for themselves and society, this proportion has been declining over time. Also the share of online adults who feel the internet has been a mixed blessing for society has been rising. Polarization is the order of the day. The abuse hurled at others on different sides of a political spectrum is also occurring among those who disagree on the best diet to follow, their favourite sportsperson and the best places to get fast food.
Societies around the world are spending less time on face-to-face interactions, which also happens to be one of the many consideration in the ensuing battle to bring workers back into the office. As Jared Diamond writes in his book Upheaval, “most Americans no longer experience one another as live humans whose faces and body movements we see, whose voices we hear, and whom we get to understand.” Instead we experience each other as digital messages, likes, shares and notifications. Our ability to relate to each other is greatly diminished, making it easier to dismiss other people’s points of view and to attack those we don’t agree with. One’s inhibitions are also reduced when the person you’re disagreeing with isn’t seen as another person but instead a username and profile photo. Abuse is that much easier to get away with when you’re protected by distance and your monitor, giving rise to the term ‘keyboard warrior’.
Various strategies have been attempted by social media platforms to curtail abusive behaviour, from highlighting community guidelines to providing access to reporting tools and shadow banning. A shadow ban refers to the practice in which a user is blocked from a platform or online community without the user realizing it. The intention is for an online troll to lose motivation in engaging in abusive behaviour because they don’t get the engagement they’re after. If you’re a troll and you’re looking to create chaos, it’s a letdown to get no likes or shares. An arguable downside to shadow banning is that it doesn’t send a strict message to the troll. An outright ban and termination of the troll’s account conveys the clear message that their abuse won’t be tolerated.
Others argue that if the inhibitions that one feels from face-to-face interactions are lacking, then there must be other ways to create a sense of accountability. Being anonymous has given many people a feeling invincibility, in that they can say anything and get away with it. As a result, some argue that the path to a less toxic internet is one in which all social media users are verified and can be traced to a specific individual.
This, however, creates a problem. For some social media users, anonymity is analogous to safety. By keeping anonymous, you’re protected from some of the more pernicious elements of the internet such as stalking or doxxing. Others have argued that those calling for the removal of anonymity operate from a position where they don’t have to worry so much about safety themselves. Reflective of this sentiment is an open letter sent in 2021 to the CEOs of Meta, Google, TikTok and X (formerly Twitter) to urgently prioritise the safety of women on these platforms.
But is anonymity really the problem? For one, some people engage in abuse even if they’re not anonymous. And conversely many people engage in friendly, productive discussions on the internet with a username or pseudonym. Many creators narrate videos or use avatars on YouTube without sharing their identity, and still create helpful, entertaining videos. Perhaps the anonymity argument is inadvertently being used to deflect responsibility away from the individual engaged in online trolling and abuse.
The past few years have seen a considerable shift in how we envisage the next iteration of the internet. It’s unclear if the metaverse will establish itself as part of web3.0 or if the AI mania is just a bubble that will burst. Perhaps AI technology will allows for smoother and fairer penalties for unacceptable online behaviour, thereby discouraging online abuse in the first place. Maybe the metaverse will create a feeling of ‘presence’ among users, making people experience similar inhibitions they do in face-to-face interactions. The internet remains a place of wonder and excitement, but the magic that was once associated with it has been adulterated by polarization, division and toxicity. Platforms have a major role to play in clamping down on trolling and abuse, but it’s also the actions of society and each individual that’ll determine if the internet regains the magic it once had.