The Internet, Accountability and Cruelty

Internet Troll by sagginj

The paradox of personalization and the self-expression promoted by the Internet through Twitter, Facebook, and even Chatroulette is that it simultaneously diminishes the value of personhood and individuality. Read the comments that accompany many blog posts and articles, and it is overwhelmingly evident that violating dignity—someone else’s and, therefore, one’s own—is a cheap and widely circulated currency. This is not only true for subjects that might ordinarily incite partisanship and passion, like sports or politics, but for pretty much anything.

The point of ad hominem attacks is to take a swipe at someone’s character, to undermine their integrity. [Michael] Chorost suggests that the reason the Internet as we now know it does not foster the kind of empathy he sees coming in the Web of the future, when we will “feel people’s inner lives electronically,” is because it is not yet an integral part of our bodies, but [Jaron] Lanier’s explanation is more convincing. The “hive mind” created through our electronic connections necessarily obviates the individual—indeed, that’s what makes it a collective consciousness. Anonymity, which flourishes where there is no individual accountability, is one of its key features, and behind it, meanness, antipathy, and cruelty have a tendency to rush right in. As the sociologist Sherry Turkle observes:

Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we can feel utterly alone. And there is the risk that we come to see others as objects to be accessed—and only for the parts that we find useful, comforting, or amusing.

Sue Halpern
Mind Control & the Internet
The New York Review of Books, 23 June 2011

Digital art by sagginj: Internet Troll (2010)

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One thought on “The Internet, Accountability and Cruelty

  1. But isn’t it the other way round, that the anonymity fosters the perception of lessened accountability? I still think people are accountable, but there’s just a bit of a practical problem with that of course. It’s the whole ring of Gyges thing, I guess.

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