June 06, 2011

Social Media + Stupid: The Weiner Warning

Greetings. Back in early 2003, I used one of the columns I was writing for Wired to discuss issues associated with pornography involving children on the Internet -- in particular the criminalization of persons who view such materials. The impetus for the essay was the then recent arrests of Peter Townshend (The Who) and Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman) on child pornography charges.

I assumed in advance that the column in question (the title of which was chosen by my editor, not by me) would be controversial -- and indeed it was.

Townshend's case was particularly interesting, since he insisted that he was accessing the associated sites as part of autobiographical research involving his own abuse as a child.

In any case, a focus of that column -- not in any way to defend the horror of kiddie porn -- was to explore how "ease of access" on the Internet might cause persons to actually act on impulses that they probably never would have indulged in the brick and mortar world -- not an excuse for behavior, but rather an explanation and warning.

While the situation with Rep. Anthony Weiner apparently doesn't involve children, and has many differences from the cases mentioned above, there is one key similarity. Weiner appears to have allowed himself to combine the ease of "social" contact on the Web, with what can only be called his own stupid, reckless, and self-destructive behavior.

Already, I'm hearing calls for broad controls and monitoring of social media, ostensibly triggered by Weiner's revelations. While likely to be easy fodder for some politicians, such demands must be rejected.

By any reasonable analysis of this situation, and of social media more generally, we must place responsibility squarely at the feet of the individuals who instigate activities such as Weiner's. Associated demands for social monitoring restrictions and eavesdropping would on the other hand do grave harm to privacy and free speech.

Still, as I implied in that old column, it is also important for us all to understand the practical implications in the "virtual world" of the Net, particularly as we often feel that we know people well on the Web -- when in actuality we're only communicating through a relative soda straw, compared with the vastly larger totality of actual human beings.

I'm not a psychologist, but I first noticed the phenomenon of "fantasizing" regarding remote network users via email decades ago -- long before the popularization of the term "social media" -- during the earliest years of ARPANET. Then, as now, the primary interface for communications was text, and (perhaps fortunately for us back then) the concept of sending photographs via the Net was itself largely a fantasy in the early days.

But it seemed clear even then that the Net provided an ideal "growth medium" for compartmenting our lives into "virtual" vs. "real" segments, and that any tendency toward less inhibition, more exhibitionism, rapid anger, and even depression, might be amplified and exacerbated via some Net communications.

With the rise of social media as we know it today, and with major portions of the world's population now engaging in related activities sometimes for many hours daily, it is more crucial than ever that we understand -- and indeed also help our children to understand -- the responsibilities associated with using social media, and how best to avoid making the kinds of mistakes that Weiner, and many others, have made to their detriment.

Attempts to blame such situations on the technology or openness of social media -- or of the Web in general -- are misguided, and in fact are likely to often be accompanied by ulterior motives aimed at restricting free speech and imposing government Internet controls in various guises.

To his credit, Rep. Weiner has explicitly not blamed Twitter nor the Internet for his current dilemma -- but other parties are already attempting to use his situation to their own advantage, toward their goals of imposing their own wills on the Net and its users.

Just a reminder that when it comes to the Web, our actions have consequences, and ultimately that blaming the Internet when we behave stupidly makes about as much sense as blaming the weatherman for a rainy day.


Posted by Lauren at June 6, 2011 09:21 PM | Permalink
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