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.


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.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

20 thoughts on “Who is going to help build a pro-social web?”

  1. This is of course what I’ve tried to do over the years. To make the internet a better place.

    But it goes beyond just posting well and participating. No amount of human posting will be sufficient to counter bot-driven (or mechanical-turk-driven) counter-content. No amount of careful contributions will turn off the surveillance and targeted advertising. And it is these that are in large part the cause of the problems.

    That’s why I’m not on Facebook. Not simply because it’s a cesspool (though it is) but because my posts can’t make an impact against the barrage of paid messaging and bots. I can’t beat the Facebook algorithm. When I have a thousand followers and only 22 of them see a post (actual numbers) I know my time on Facebook is up.

  2. Hi Dave, thank you for this post. May I offer a Portuguese version of it and post it to my blog? Brazilian families need to have access to well articulated and well informed opinions such as yours.
    Thank you for the work you and Bonnie do in helping us all take better part of digital participatory cultures.
    Clarissa from Brazil

  3. I’m in… and trying. I think you’re absolutely right. We need to shape the web and community we want to be part of online.

    That being said. I’m still suspect against some of the platforms being engineered to draw our attention or shape what we see, contribute, and say on the Internet… but I guess that means not giving up or making spaces that mean something (if possible).

    If only we could start over… somewhere else… with the thoughtful and introspective people we know. #UtopiaWeb, where for art thou? Thanks for your post, Dave. It comes at a time when I have been thinking more about our networked practices and experiences.

    1. Nope. No start over with the thoughtful people we know. I want the not-thoughtful people we don’t know. I want to convince them that being nice to people is worthwhile. That science is a real thing. etc…

  4. Very thoughtful and ever so true Dave. Thanks for this summary of my recent thoughts but put so much more eloquently.

    I try to take an optimistic view of the world. It’s a choice that I make every day. What we do need is critical thinking. It’s critical thinking that I’m choosing to pursue when I consume content online, but my response (which is fully my own choice to make) is optimism. I believe in humans. I believe humans can make good choices and build a pro-social internet. Will that include all humans? Maybe not. Nobody can control the actions of others. I can only control my own actions. So it’s up to every individual to make their own choices. There’s never going to be a perfect world, but I believe in progress and working toward something better. If someone chooses to think this is naive, let them, that’s their choice. I can only do what I can do.

    Knowing this, we all have the capacity to build a pro-social internet and that personal capacity can’t be taken away. If we use this personal capacity for good, for living our values and for teaching others about thinking critically, it’s the best we can do.

    As a parent to two young daughters, I feel it is my responsibility to teach them critical thinking when it comes to using the internet. As generations now have no choice but to live alongside and with the internet, it becomes the duty of parents, educators and society to help our kids figure this landscape out (even if we are still figuring it out ourselves).

    When we reach the teen years in our household, I’ll continue to evaluate this thinking. The internet will be continuously evolving to that point and we need to continuously evolve with it.

  5. This is wonderful and timely Dave. I still cannot thank you enough for participating in my week long “iTec Digital Identity” project back in 2016 (link at bottom).

    I am working on morphing that project and my “Smart Cities” topic from this semester (which I quickly renamed/pivoted to Smart Citizens) into a semester long topics course for August-December. I plan to do this in my normal connected course mode and hope that others can play along.

    Link: http://kenscourses.com/iTec/

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