From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

November 29, 2008*: Bad Netizenship.

I'm not sure when the last time was that I actually ran across the word Netizen on a web page. Though once a very popular term (at least in the circles with which I'm identified), in the wild-west, no-person's-land territory of today's internet there doesn't seem to be any place for the term. It seems as though its time has passed. Not only the term seems to have fallen out of use - the very concept of a resident of cyberspace who sees that residence as something that makes demands on his or her behavior would seem to reflect an earlier, perhaps more innocent, time. A decade ago starting to "use" the internet derived from a conscious decision. People felt as though they were "joining up", and when they did, to a certain extent they also adopted a set of expected behaviors. Today, the barriers between a state of being occasionally still referred to as "real life", and that of "online life" have blurred until the point of having almost totally disappeared. And with the loss of that distinction, the concept of a Netizen, someone with a clearly defined set of online behaviors, seems anachronistic and unnecessary.

Perhaps back then there was a real need for a clearly defined, though obviously idealized, characterization of a resident of cyberspace. After all, many people thought that the online world promised a purer set of behaviors than the physical world, and having an ideal to which we might aspire made the act of going online a sort of commitment. But the years since then have brought numerous disappointments - not the least of which is the realization that there's no welcoming committee that screens out those who exhibit undesirable behaviors. It would appear that if Netizens actually exist, they're the minority of cyberspace residents. There doesn't seem to be much reason to continue to attempt to define who a Netizen is, or how he or she should behave online. And yet, in certain circles at least, there still seems to be a generally accepted, if unspoken, code of behavior via which a proper Netizen can be identified. What we do in our offline lives, or even when we're alone with our own computers, may be our own business, but there are certain expectations placed upon us when we're online. Forwarding, or not forwarding, junk mail concerns us all, and isn't considered proper. A Netizen in good standing might, for instance, chuckle for a moment at a pleasant joke received via an endless series of Fwds, but rather than continuing that series would click on delete instead, assuming that most of his or her contacts could live without the intrusion. There are, undoubtedly, exceptions to this, but they're probably the exceptions that define the rule. In a similar manner, though they may not be clearly delineated, there seem to be numerous levels of Netizenship. While a run-of-the-mill Netizen, for instance, might simply not pass on an urban legend that finds its way to his or her inbox, a truly upstanding Netizen would not only break the chain, but might also devote a few moments to searching Snopes or other urban legend sites in order to find a page that definitively disproves the legend, and send that link to the person from whom he or she received it.

Additional grey areas also exist. The jury is still out, for instance, on the question of whether a good Netizen signs and forwards online petitions. My personal take on these is that because signing a petition of this sort demands almost no effort, doing so also doesn't actually reflect commitment, making its actual worth negligible. To my mind it's preferable not to sign these at all. I can, however, understand those who claim that as our lives have moved online, so should our social/political behavior. Clay Shirky, in Here Comes Everbody makes a good case for the claim that one of the most important qualities of the internet is the manner in which it encourages us to act as groups and makes doing so incredibly easy. And this suggests that signing a petition is a valid, and even positive, online behavior.

Appeals for donations are another similar case in point. As with urban legends, I ordinarily try to check out the authenticity of most of these I receive. To my dismay, I've learned that the vast majority of these aren't relevant, and as a rule of thumb don't pass them on. And yet, one recently received request that went straight into the trash turned out to be totally legitimate - I later learned that someone I know actually knows the family making the request. It stands to reason that email's ease of use makes it desirable not only for spammers, but for people who want to further good causes as well, and perhaps checking something out exemplifies better Netizenship that simply automatically breaking the chain. And I suppose that a good Netizen also realizes that there isn't one correct code of behavior but instead numerous individual codes. Cyberspace, after all, is comprised of an amorphous amalgam of users, each with different degrees, or at different stages, of internet use. Many of these users are honestly trying to establish workable parameters for their online lives, and if, to my mind, the parameters they determine as desirable for themselves may be improper, they may think the same about mine.

Even raising the issue of an agreed upon set of expectations toward online behavior today seems a bit futile. If such expectations actually exist, it's a good guess that they're minimalistic, and perhaps at an all-time low. Non-interference in the lives of others may be seen as (not only) an online virtue, but few would argue that not reaching out to help, or simply not notifying someone responsible about the cries of someone in need, should be viewed as desirable behavior. But even referring to this as an "all-time low" is perhaps inaccurate. It's hard to reach an all-time-low when essentially it's a case of not having any expectations at all. It's not that these expectations don't exist because we've come to expect the worst, but because we have no reason to expect online behavior to be different than offline. When there's close to no distinction between our online and our offline lives, there's no reason to judge online behavior by a standard different than our low expectations of ourselves in our offline lives.

With numerous serious, even life-threatening, examples of dubious online behavior, it's perhaps a bit strange that this series of thoughts grew out of what was clearly a banal, and highly forgettable, event. A visitor from Canada brought us a box of Laura Secord chocolates causing me to rather logically ask who Laura Second was. Tzippi, of course, knew the answer, but not being versed in Canadian history my curiosity had been raised, and I wanted to find out a bit more, which led, as is often the case, to Wikipedia. The page I found there seemed reliable enough, meaning that it pretty much corroborated what Tzippi had learned from childhood. But though the basic information seemed correct, the page itself, its writing and editing, gave the impression of a junior high school assignment, or at best the work of someone who'd never acquired the habit of copyreading his or her work. Finding this poorly edited page, however, raised the question of my own online behavior: Should I, as an upstanding Netizen, lend my hand and do some needed editing? Should I contribute at least a few moments so that future visitors to that page would find something a bit more coherent and presentable? I didn't. And in the end, that mis-information remains, waiting for someone else to take some initiative.

I suppose that pretty much anything to which we might pledge allegiance is intangible - god and country being the first to come to mind. That being the case, there's perhaps nothing particularly strange in aspiring to be an upstanding Netizen - and in failing at the attempt. As amorphous as the internet might be, trying to live up to a romanticized set of behaviors in cyberspace is hardly more problematic that holding ourselves to other idealized standards. The problem with Netizenship isn't that it's an intangible concept, an unachievable ideal. The fact that the concept became anachronistic almost as soon as it sprang into public awareness is also irrelevant here. Netizenship is problematic because it's basically a term bereft of meaning. Behavior is behavior is behavior, and gets held to the same standards in whatever realm we encounter it, be it physical or virtual. For one short moment some of us may have been swept into wishfully thinking that the online world might perhaps pave the way for a different, better set of values than those we were all to familiar with in the physical world. We shouldn't really be surprised that we were mistaken. We can, however, be distressed that all this leaves for us is to dabble with basically irrelevant issues of whether or not we should edit the grammar on a Wikipedia page.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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