Who is going to help build a pro-social web?

Last year, I was standing in a high school auditorium talking to parents about the internet. A parent told a story about seeing her kids watch a mean-spirited youtube video. She didn’t know how to approach her children to address it. She talked about standing there, excluded, while her children laughed along with the video.

She asked me, “what am I supposed to do about the internet?”

Good question. What am I supposed to do about the what the internet is doing to me? There was a terrible sense of helplessness in the way she spoke about the web. She saw it as something done TO her.

That mom was worried that she wasn’t allowed to parent her children anymore. I tried, in a rambling 10 minute response, to give her permission to parent her kids… even if it’s on the internet.

Later that week, in a discussion before a radio interview, I ended up in a similar conversation about how to parent kids’ access to the internet. The interviewer mentioned their child’s access to the internet was limited to one hour a night, and that the two of them were friends on Instagram. Without really thinking, I asked “You mean on the Instagram account you know about?”

I left that meeting thinking of all the things that a teenager could get into in an hour on the internet. In 2005, the concerns that I would have heard would have mostly been access to pornography and the potential of stalkers. As social sites became more and more prevalent, concerns in 2012 would evolved to include things like bullying in online spaces. A slightly savvier internet user would have suggested that things like Reddit were a danger.

The internet in 2019 has a whole other load of problems. There are very deep algorithms that are tracking that child in the hour they are online, slowly crafting their desires towards some random purchase. The intensity of the attention economy has many of us – kids or no – convinced that we need to craft a personal image to an increasingly refined degree. The prevalence of digital devices has kids in constant emotional flux in their relationships with each other as they can change and shift on a minute by minute basis… often in the middle of the night. There are trolls, professional and otherwise, who are ready to attack for LOLS at any time. And, maybe most dangerous, there are extremists (White Nationalists come to mind) who are actively recruiting young people into some very troubling ideology.

Plus, lets face it, they are constantly inundated by careless, petty micro-aggressions by half the adult population in their own participation in online spaces.

And… there is no way to keep children from the internet. There is no conceivable process that keeps any kid from the amazing potential of the internet. Guitar lessons on youtube. Wikipedia answers to fact-based questions. Recipes. Music… oh my god the music. Almost anything you could ever want to know or do is something that can be found on the internet.

Kids are going to use the internet. Humans are going to use the internet. We are going to learn all the lessons that the internet has to teach. We learn the pettiness. The aggression. That way people dismiss the feelings of famous people by insulting them.

Here’s the thing. WE CAN ALSO AFFECT WHAT THOSE LESSONS ARE.

The internet is fundamentally participatory. The internet grows, all internet platforms grow, on the addition of content. Every time you post on facebook, or send a picture into the ether, you’ve contributed to the conversation that is shaping our future. Every comment. Every like. It shapes what everyone else understands. Internet companies make money (often from ads, sometimes from your data) when you participate in them.

And yet, on a weekly basis, I hear otherwise intelligent, caring, socially responsible people saying that they ‘don’t do the internet’ or ‘won’t go on social media’ because its a cesspool (which it definitely sometimes is). And every time one of those people stops connecting online – every time they stop offering a sensible answer or fact check an erroneous story – every time one of those people walks away, the story that we read on the internet gets a little worse.

I mean. I get it. I know lots of smart people who have quit facebook (or twitter, or instagram or whatever) because they don’t want to give away their data or because they are attacked, or because it affects their mental health in negative ways. Every story is different. Those are good reasons to do that. But. If we all turn away from the internet, who is going to be writing the story of our culture moving forward?

You can see where i’m going with this.

You need to help build a pro-social web. Every time you are fair to someone you disagree with on the internet, you leave a good connection behind you. You create a participatory node that represents your values. Every time you fact check something before you post it, you’re creating a reliable lesson that can be learned by someone else. Every time you participate, in a conscious, deliberate way, you are putting another stone into the foundation that supports the values you believe in.

The last three years have shown us the tremendous impact that a cynical, extremist and data-driven web can have on our culture. Look at what it’s done to our poor friends in the UK (good luck over there). So many of these damaging, divisive culture wars are the creation of companies (and governments) with an agenda that has nothing to do with the well-being of our society.

Please participate. Do it well. Put your values on the internet. Our society is literally being shaped by the internet right now, and will be for the foreseeable future. We are all watching the web we’re building. The web is us. Help build a good one.

Please help build a pro-social web.