As a parent, I think a lot about the world we are creating for our children. As an advocate for press freedom and digital rights I think a lot about the web we are creating for our children too.
A lot of my work centers around creating more democratic structures and policies that shape our media, and pushing back on the companies that want to assert more and more control over the Internet. But I also think a lot about how the Internet changes the ways we communicate with each other, and thus the ways we relate to each other. When I get sucked into a Twitter fight, see a particularly ugly comment thread, or hear about bullying and harassment online, I wonder what kind of web my kids will inherit from us.
That’s why I was so struck when I read Jeff Jarvis’ blog post “We get the net—and society—we build.” Jarvis’ post (a response to this post from Amanda Palmer on “Internet hate” – also a must read) puts into words a few things I have been feeling in my gut for sometime. He writes:
“We are building the norms of our new net society. It can go either way; there’s nothing, absolutely nothing to say that technology will lead to a better or worse world. It only provides us choices and the opportunity to show our own nature in what we choose. Will you support the fights, the attacks, the hate? Or will you stand up for the victims and against the bullies and trolls and their cheering mobs who gleefully tweet, ‘Fight! Fight!’?”
Jarvis’s post is a profound reminder that each of us is making the web as we go along. Our tweets, our Facebook posts, our Instagram photos, our Reddit comments are both literally and figuratively the links that hold the web together. Online our actions don’t speak louder than words, our words are our actions, and we should make them count.
In her blog post Amanda Palmer talks about Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old who committed suicide after being bullied on and off line. I live just up the road from South Hadley, a town that was put on the map in 2010 when a 15-year-old student there, Phoebe Prince, committed suicide after being bullied relentlessly. These stories resonate for me in part because when I was in high school a friend of mine committed suicide when he was about 15.
Today, we access the web via our phones, our laptops, our TVs. We connect to the Internet via WiFi routers and Ethernet cables and phone lines. Given all of that, it is easy to forget that at its most basic, the web is us.
In 2011 Jim Gilliam gave a speech at the Personal Democracy Forum that spoke to this point. He said, “We are all connected, we are all in debt to each other, we all owe every moment of our lives to countless people we will never meet. The internet gives us the opportunity to pay back a small part of that debt.” How we treat those people that we may never meet, those people on the other side of all those connections, will necessarily shape those connections for years to come.
Gilliam’s talk was so full of hope that when he said at the end, “We have faith that people connected can create a new world,” it was easy to ignore the double-edged nature of that promise. There is, of course, the threat that without some compassion, accountability and care, we might not like the world we create.
A few months before my first son was born I asked my father how to raise a good, caring and compassionate son in a world so full of mixed messages for men and boys alike. There is a lot we can’t control, he said, but what we can do is try to be the kind of men we want our sons to aspire to. Our example is the best compass we can provide to our sons and our daughters.
Creating a new world, or in Jarvis’ words “building the norms of our new net society,” isn’t that much different. “This is our problem. Your problem. My problem,” Jarvis writes. “When argument over an idea turns to attack against a person, then it crosses the line. When disliking a person becomes public ridicule of that person, it is hate. Dealing with that isn’t the responsibility of government. It is our responsibility.”
As a parent, it is not enough to wring my hands about bullying or hate online. It’s not enough to wonder how to protect my kids. As a parent, it is incumbent on me to engage in the hard work of building a better web by being a better citizen of the web.