Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Parallel ethics

I went to my first 'Westminster Skeptics' meeting tonight which was on science activism and new media. Really excellent, speakers and audience with lots of food for thought. One thing in particular, that the Holford Watch blogger (name?) said, as an aside really got me thinking.

He described bloggers as having "novel ethical norms". Now if you were being cruel you might say yes, locked away in the darkness, hunched over a tiny screen it's no wonder many bloggers develop such unbelievably stunted manners. But let's not be cruel, let's be nice.

I think it's an interesting point because there are clear differences in what is seen as ethical and unethical online and where the borders are in meat space.

If you compare the way a newspaper article and a blog piece use links for example it is expected of a blogger to link to their sources, in a similar way to academics if less formal, whilst there's no expectation for journalists to link to source material so the reader can judge for themselves whether the journo is getting things right.

More importantly the only context where I would have a discussion with anonymous people is on a blog (not this one, I don't allow anonymous comments, although people still use pseudonyms, which is fine). I certainly wouldn't put up with the rudeness of some online commentators in a face to face meeting - although it's usually pretty civilised round here as I don't allow that sort of thing to grow.

However, it's still true that the net frees some people up to their inner bore who's lurking beneath the surface and they think nothing of exhibiting behavior that, if they saw it in their day to day life, they would be horrified at.

So why is this? Well, I think it comes down to basic material factors rather than any new exciting 'social media philosophy' or some such.

Linking is easy. Anonymity is possible online, it is not face to face. More than that it is easily done, which is why anonymous hate mail in real life is rare (but sadly does exist) and online is a way of life for some. Even being unpleasant to people is encouraged because it is so much easier to come across people you despise.

I've never been to a Tory meeting in my life even though, theoretically, it affords me the opportunity to start screaming "Remember the Belgrano!" and tipping water over the branch secretary. However, if I was so inclined, I could open a new tab in firefox, bring up a Tory blog and verbally piss in it, all without leaving my chair, risking physical attack, or any awkward questions from the old bill.

The fact that the majority of people who read political blogs do not do these things is a credit to the human race, but the fact it's made easy by the technology increases the likelihood no end. Of course, cunningly, the web has corralled most of these commentators into a few vile, bear-pits of blogs where everyone else knows not to go - but they do escape sometimes.

Anyway, norms. What happens in society when we transgress norms?

There are formal sanctions: We might be put in jail. We might be physically attacked. We might lose our job. We might be thrown out of the pub. Your boy/girlfriend might dump you. Online the equivalents are so much weaker, although we are still subject to the law, even if people forget it sometimes.

There are also informal sanctions: people might tell us we're a wanker. They might stop talking to us. They may raise their eyebrows and stop inviting us over for scrabble. Seeing as online these behaviors are generally directed towards targets that they don't even see as people where's the loss in any of those?

There are certainly parts of online ethics that are to be celebrated. The constant linking and referencing of other people's work for example, the culture of sharing of videos and recommending interesting 'stuff', the ultra-social side where you keep in touch with people you rarely get to see in real life. All made possible through the technology, but the darker side needs to be recognised too.

It's not just that people do things online they'd never do elsewhere, it's the fact that it's generally accepted that makes it a 'norm', related to the ethics of wider society but somehow parallel to it, with it's own rules and nuances.

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