Should there be a distinction between the world of the internet and the ‘real world’?

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In the wake of comments by Caroline Criado-Perez that the Twitter abuse she received left her “emotionally scarred,” it might be poignant to examine the phenomenon of online abuse. The online world has largely been assimilated into the ‘real’ world, and is now an essential part of our current social existence.  Even so, some might still find it hard to accept this unity. One difference between online/offline conversations is the fact that we might tinker with, and suspend, our proposed speech when using the web. However, even this function can be compared to our ability to consciously filter and choose our words in real life. What’s more, it would be interesting to consider how many of us give due thought to the impact of our message prior to pressing ‘enter’ – similar to blurting something insensitive out whilst talking to people (a common occurrence). At the dawn of computerised communication, one may have been able to draw a faint line between online/offline. However, the instantaneity of web-chat has now blurred this division beyond recognition.

[quote]Censorship and caution is all very well, but perhaps a routine examination of our web-outbursts would serve us better[/quote]

Though distance in terms of time has been reduced, space remains, and this is what makes the internet a dangerous place. Whilst we experience immediacy in receiving any message, our sense of impact is distorted by the fact that we cannot gauge the expression of the person sitting at another computer. Neither can we adjust the tone of our voice. We must use an emoticon to display our intent. Not only does this increase the likelihood of innocuous offence being caused, but it also means that intentionally vicious people can hide behind a screen. This, I believe, is one of the major problems of new, post-modern, web communities.

A precarious aspect of the internet is the fact that people can insult at will with the assured knowledge that there is vast physical distance between themselves and the abused. Another reason the internet is relatively unsafe is because of the existence of an illusion of privacy. This means that even people who think they are harmlessly joking (such as Paul Chambers, who threatened to blow up Robin Hood Airport:), or assume they are having a private conversation online (cricketer Graeme Swann’s comment on his brother’s Facebook wall comparing England’s ashes defeat to rape spring to mind) are liable to be front-page news the following day. The internet is peculiarly public. However, the combination of this wall of protection with the illusion of privacy is also helpful in enabling us to observe the latent bigotry and malice which lurks beneath an otherwise placid surface. The democratisation of freedom of speech means we are able to see a wider range of opinions than has ever been seen before. It is much the same as the apparent smoothness of our skin being examined under a microscope; only then do we see the ridges and contours which form our bodies.

The two who sent Criado-Perez those abusive messages have been charged with “improper use of a social network” – a convergence of social-media and real life. Throw-away comments on Twitter or ill-thought status updates on Facebook can now get you into a whole heap of trouble. The important lesson to take from this is that we mustn’t marginalise behaviour online as something different from the real world. There are horrid splurges of bigotry, racism, sexism and every other sort of prejudice all over social media – these aren’t instances which should be defined by the fact that they are on the internet; they are all very real. The marvel of the World Wide Web is the fact that it entices us to share almost everything – some might say we reveal our true selves. This opportunity for self-indulgence should also give us an opportunity for self-reflection. Censorship and caution is all very well, but perhaps a routine examination of our web-outbursts would serve us better.

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