The Internet Is Not a Free Pass

Last week I posted a status on facebook bemoaning the fact that some people on the internet feel that they have a right to give other people random and unsolicited health advice. In response, I got a fair number of people saying “well it’s the internet, what did you expect”, or “you put your information out in public, that means you want people to comment and converse about it.” This was not exactly what I had been expecting.

For some reason, a lot of people seem to assume that because people often behave really badly (harassing, insulting, generally just being offensive and condescending douches) on the internet, that means that we shouldn’t care when people behave badly on the internet. They say that people are anonymous on the internet, so it’s bound to happen. They ask “are you surprised?” They act as if everyone has license to treat you however they choose online, because you have chosen to be in a public space. Oddly enough I’m not really convinced by all these arguments that I should just stop caring and let the assholes run wild.

So there appear to be a few reasons that people seem to think that the internet is and should continue to be a complete free for all in terms of civility and behavior. One is because the internet is impossible to regulate. “There’s just too many of them out there, we might as well give up!” Oddly enough I hear this argument pretty much nowhere in the real world. “There’s too many murders, we might as well give up!” Generally, when a bad behavior is prevalent we take that to mean that we should work harder to get rid of it, not throw our hands up in despair. Even if we can never solve the problem entirely, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our best to improve how people treat each other. Yes, it’s entirely true that we may never solve the problem of incivility on the internet, that we can’t regulate it in the most effective ways because of the medium, but we can still do our best.

Another is that the internet is the place of free speech! NO ONE CAN TOUCH THE HOLY SHRINE OF THE FREE SPEECH! So here’s the thing about free speech: you may have the right to say what you want in a public place, but you don’t have the right to say whatever you want in my space, you don’t have the right to say whatever you want without criticism, and you absolutely don’t have the right to be heard no matter what you say. I have the right to ban you, to delete your comment, to ignore you, to criticize you, or to tell you what’s wrong with what you just said. None of these things infringe on your free speech. In fact the benefit of free speech is that it allows these kinds of interactions to happen and we all grow from it. The beauty of free speech is that we can alert people to the fact that they might be saying something absolutely horrible and then argue for our point.

But perhaps the most pernicious myth about the internet is that that’s the way it is, so that’s the way it is. The internet is anonymous and so it will never be improved because anonymity will always lead to asshattery. We can’t do anything about it, and we shouldn’t, we should simply accept it as is. Here’s my problem with that: if we did it for any other problem, our world would become a stinking cesspit of hate and filth and cruelty. It is a huge logical fallacy to assume that because something is a certain way that’s how it should be.

When I mention something that I find inappropriate, I don’t do it just to complain. I do it to illustrate to people who do it that it’s not appropriate. I generally try to explain why I find it inappropriate, and what they could do differently. I expect more of my fellow human beings and I’m willing to tell them so. Even if it is harder to be kind and empathetic online, I believe that we can do it, or at least that we can do better than we’re doing now. There are ways that we can improve how people behave online and when they’re anonymous, and that’s by having consequences for bad behavior. In the offline world, there are absolutely consequences for being a jerk: people stop listening to you, stop hanging out with you, stop dating you or inviting you to parties, they call you out and make you feel ashamed of what you’re doing. We can do all these things on the internet. We can ban those who act inappropriately. We can call them out and tell them we don’t like it. We can tarnish their reputation with their own actions. We can make them unwelcome because they are treating us poorly. Yes, this may take some energy and some time, and there are still places that they can slink off to where we have no power. But we can keep our own spaces safe and kind and healthy. None of this is bullying or cruelty: it’s simple cause and effect. If you come onto my blog and insult me, I will make you feel unwelcome. That is my right.

Anywhere that’s not the internet, our public spaces have rules and expectations. We don’t condone someone running down the street screaming at people and insulting them. We understand that just because we’re in a public space that does not mean that we should accept being treated poorly, and in general we work together as communities to build certain expectations into our public spaces. The same goes for the internet. If we want to claim this new public space as somewhere that we can be safe and comfortable, then we have to be willing to police our own space, demand more from others, and create consequences for those who act inappropriately. For me, that’s calling people out and reminding them that just because you’re online that does not give you a free pass. It’s banning. It’s commenting on bad blog posts. It’s actively engaging where hate and cruelty are happening and saying “that’s bullshit”. We’re still all human beings, even when we’re on the internet, and I still expect all of us to act with the basics of human decency.

 

P.S. I have no idea why I chose the image I did but it came up when I googled internet.

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