April 15, 2013

Internet Nastiness

A recent post by a favorite commentator, the self-described “Crabby Old Lady” Ronni Bennett on her popular blog Time Goes By, lamented the growing presence of hateful comments about old people on Facebook . . . and the online giant’s failure to address it. To read Ronni’s comments – including the examples of hateful, threatening language she’s encountered on Facebook -- click here and scroll to her piece from April 12.

She is concerned that age is not listed among the site’s “protected” categories. Here’s the language from Facebook’s Community Standards defining what it finds allowable and what it deems unacceptable:
HATE SPEECH: Content that attacks people based on their actual or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or disease is not allowed. We do, however, allow clear attempts at humor or satire that might otherwise be considered a possible threat or attack. This includes content that many people may find to be in bad taste (ex: jokes, stand-up comedy, popular song lyrics, etc.).
VIOLENCE AND THREATS: Safety is Facebook's top priority. We remove content and may escalate to law enforcement when we perceive a genuine risk of physical harm, or a direct threat to public safety. You may not credibly threaten others, or organize acts of real-world violence. Organizations with a record of terrorist or violent criminal activity are not allowed to maintain a presence on our site. We also prohibit promoting, planning or celebrating any of your actions if they have, or could, result in financial harm to others, including theft and vandalism.  
BULLYING AND HARRASSMENT: Facebook does not tolerate bullying or harassment. We allow users to speak freely on matters and people of public interest, but take action on all reports of abusive behavior directed at private individuals. Repeatedly targeting other users with unwanted friend requests or messages is a form of harassment.
I don’t spend much time on Facebook. I check in to see what friends have posted, and to post stuff myself. I’ve never seen anything really objectionable. But then, I haven’t snooped around. I spend too much time on the computer as it is.

I do know that the anonymous status of commentators on the net brings lots of incivility generally. People discard the normal conventions of restraint when they're released from the possibility of consequences. Facebook does seem to have more and more entities that are not the names of real people . . . and who knows how many entities with apparently real names are actually pseudonyms? If I suggested that a disproportionate number of those mystery characters spewing unpleasantness were young, wouldn’t that be a form of ageism, too?

Good and Bad Everywhere: Real AND Virtual Life
My uninformed gut feeling: what Ronni and others have found is a symptom of more incivility on the impersonal internet. Even people who use their real names seem somehow freer to dispense with the politeness they might show in a face-to-face cocktail party encounter.

Then again, there are jerks everywhere . . . including -- at times -- yours truly!

To be sure, I’ve seen highly unsocial, often inflammatory, remarks in unmoderated comments to stories and blog posts. Anger and meanness are everywhere; that's why so many sites publish comments only after reviewing them.

An instance of virtual weirdness directed at me personally came from an unexpected place: a popular website created to bring people together who shared the same diseases and conditions. It’s a wonderful concept, and I’m certain this site and others like it have helped thousands of people.

The discussions on this particular forum seem dominated by a few regulars who've become acquainted through long, frequent exchanges. Since I ration my PC time, I'd appear only when I'd published a blog post I thought might be helpful or interesting. A few long-time members began expressing resentment at my just dropping in once in a while with brief comments and links to the blog for more information.

They questioned my motives for “joining” the group, belittled my observations, and seemed convinced I was involved in some insidious commercial venture. Someone filed a complaint to the site’s moderator, who then instructed me not to mention my blog again on the site. It didn’t matter that my posts were non-commercial reports on the latest scientific findings about Parkinson’s – info I thought people like me might find helpful – or posts about my own experience and struggles with the disease. I got the message: I wasn't welcome unless I "paid my dues" by joining their extensive discussions.

By the way, I’ve written about red flags we need to watch for when considering joining online groups.

I love the internet and its infinite uses. I’d feel lost without it. Still, navigating its uncharted waters is tricky. I'm particularly wary of Facebook, viewing it as a black hole people fall into and end up wasting time telling their 1347 "friends" what they had for breakfast. I'd rather spend my time meeting face-to-face with my small group of good friends.

Have you witnessed ageism or incivility on the internet? Have you experienced it personally in your own virtual travels? Please feel free to share your experience in the comments below.

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