I remember going through a phase of collecting trolls somewhere in my distant childhood.
I adored their neon pink hair and had a window ledge crammed full of them. Since diving into the world of social media, having witnessed its embryonic days from a front-row seat in California, I've acquired trolls of an entirely different nature. I'm thankful these cyber-trolls are not sitting on my window ledge as the vile messages they've sent have sent chills down my spine.
Plenty of opinions have been aired lately on how to deal with online abuse. Yesterday we saw one of them in action: #TwitterSilence. Many have boycotted the social network for twenty four hours to stand in solidarity with the victims of the abuse. Despite having endured some pretty gross trolling myself, I decided against joining the boycott. The initial idea was Caitlin Moran's and I respect her greatly; she has dealt with a vast amount of online abuse herself. Her motives for initiating the so-called #Trolliday are fantastic, so in no way am I criticising her.
When Caitlin announced her idea of #TwitterSilence, I felt torn. While respecting the concept, it felt like an odd tactic. The goal of recent online attacks has been to scare us into shutting up. When you already feel like you're being silenced the solution to that is not, in my opinion, more silence.
Some joined the boycott as a protest against Twitter's staff; to show them we can evacuate their platform if they fail to help police it adequately. I have good friends working for Twitter UK and know they are doing their very best to improve their service. Creating a 'them and us' is not helpful; we all need to work together. The real target are the trolls and they, not Twitter's hardworking staff, are the problem.
On a more philosophical level, "switching off" a gadget or social network as a solution has interesting ethical implications. From my academic research into technological ethics this is what I'd refer to as the 'broken binary' of our handling of technology. Yet it's a method of attack that's often employed. This 'broken binary' involves assumptions that switching off is a good solution; that it's morally preferable to switching on; and that offline is 'real life' and online is not. All of these need addressing; especially the fact that life online is very real indeed.
Technology is a tool; it's not entirely a neutral one, but very much gives us the chance to determine how we use it. Social media can't be blamed for the troubles it is throwing up. The tool is in our hands and we get to choose what we do with it It's like the invention of the printing press; people claimed it would cause the destruction of society, such were its supposed evils. The invention of the wheel brought similar decisions with it; we get to choose whether we drive safely and enhance life, or drive recklessly and kill people. The moral onus is not primarily on the tool, it's on us. Putting the tool down doesn't fix anything and it implies the moral responsibility is on the tool to fix itself. Change comes from learning to handle the tool well, day in day out.
I'm a huge sci-fi fan so blame it on that, but part of my PhD is looking at Transhumanism. This is the merging of human and machine. You might say "that's never going to happen", but based on our current dependence on gadgets I believe we'll see embedded technology for personal enhancement purposes within our life time. We already have pacemakers and prosthetic limbs; the line between human and machine is rapidly blurring.
From the tiny smartphones we clutch all day, it's comprehensible that we'll gradually get used to the idea of embedding chips in our bodies - even if many wince at the idea for ethical or physical reasons now. The blurring line between human and machine means that in future the broken binary of "on" and "off" related to technology will seem laughable. It will simply be part of us. Hence the need for us to learn to handle it well now.
Many parents tell me they are struggling to help their children handle technology with healthy boundaries. They simply result to: "Right then, turn that thing off!" Instead of this broken binary solution, parents could teach their kids how to develop good boundaries with the technology still on. Otherwise kids won't be ready for the always-on culture that they are likely to inhabit as adults.
Yesterday I aimed to speak up, to blog, write and do interviews about combatting trolling because I want to be louder - not quieter - as a result of the abuse. By standing stubbornly in these online spaces and refusing to budge or be muted, we will gradually see change happen. Switching off doesn't really help; someday in the not-too-distant-future "online" and "offline" will be laughably outdated concepts. The best way to prepare for that is to stay logged on and work from within to bring change.
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