I have been quite fascinated by how lately our conversations at parties, social get-togethers end up being centered on our virtual lives. Animated reports around our friends (and quite often foes) and their recent job, vacation, relationship status fly from different corners of the room; the veracity of each account verified by those who happened to be the unwary recipients of the “status update” on the door step of their “feeds”.
There is however a clear shift from the initial euphoria of following Ashton Kutcher on Twitter and Bees Saal Baad type of reunions on Facebook, to conversations around the growing incivility and overt rudeness on some of these platforms.
One of my favourite discourses during college days was an essay by French philosopher Michel Foucault on Truth & Power. In this, Foucault spoke about how there is no absolute truth and truth is merely a construct by those who wield power in that structure –
The important thing here, I believe, is that truth isn’t outside power, or lacking in power … truth isn’t the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves. Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it includes regular effects of power.
‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it. A ‘regime’ of truth.
If we were to apply this to the online world, we actually see new structures of power emerging. From the previous dichotomies of money (have vs. have-nots), gender (man vs. woman), colour (black vs. white) we seem to be moving in a new realm of dichotomy online – the influential vs. the uninfluential.
So what’s the linkage between the growing incivility online* and the emergence of the new power structure of the influential and the uninfluential? Think about it, incivility is a natural by-product of the tussle between the owners of two ends of influence.
Now, that brings us to the next obvious question – WHO is influential in the new online economy?
Interestingly enough, there are actually two completely diverse set of people who have the maximum influence – those who are well-known and those who are unknown (or to put it differently anonymous).
You become influential/well-known when –
- More number of people voluntarily comply to your influence by becoming your “friend”, “follower” or “fan” (check out how in ancient time, kings became the ultimate kings by doing the same exercise that they then used to call Ashwamedha sacrifice J )
- When you say good things about yourself – why? Because Google Search favours the immodest (the ‘best’ iphone apps, ‘top’ 10 experts)
- If you talk all the time – this is quite simple – roadblock the communication channel with your chatter, the more you speak the stronger your voice grows (more no. of tweets = twitter veteran)
- When you have a strong gang online, bound by an unwritten code of conduct – you scratch my back and I will scratch yours. They will stand by you no matter what you say, support you in every argument right or wrong
- The sound of your above online success reaches the ears of what is still the biggest altar of influence in India – the media. Credibility, recognition and few columns later, you now have point 1 set in a beautiful viral loop
You also become influential when you are anonymous –
- Using a pseudo-identity, you can now take pot-shots with malice towards one and all, people who in real life are beyond your orbit, are now placed under your control
- Since there is zero accountability for your behavior ( read this study on how dim light makes people dishonest)
Now you may have noticed that it is both these set of influential people who often are involved in different form of incivility – the well known influential may engage in more suave forms of incivility – ridiculing, gossiping, isolating their “victims” while their anonymous counterparts may engage in blatant profanities and other derogatory remarks. In this context, I found this entry in a psychology wiki particularly interesting –
In colloquial speech, bullying is most often used to describe a form of harassment perpetrated by a child who is in some way more powerful than a weaker peer.
Researchers accept generally that bullying contains three essential elements: “(1) the behavior is aggressive and negative; (2) the behavior is carried out repeatedly; and (3) the behavior occurs in a relationship where there is an imbalance of power between the parties involved.”
Bullying is broken into two categories: 1) direct bullying, and 2) indirect bullying, also known as social or relational aggression.… This isolation is achieved through a wide variety of techniques, including: spreading gossip, refusing to socialize with the victim, bullying other people who wish to socialize with the victim, and criticizing the victim’s manner of dress and other socially-significant markers (including the victim’s race, religion, disability, etc).
Bullying can occur in situations including in school or college/university, the workplace, by neighbours, and between countries (See Jingoism). Whatever the situation, the power structure is typically evident between the bully and victim.
My intention behind this post was not to expose the underbelly of gross manipulation online under the garb of influence, nor was it to theorise about who is influential and forms of incivility they engage in (though I have largely ended up covering these). My intention was to really raise a question on is there a need to for rude behaviour, sarcastic comments, jokes at other expense all the time? If at all we need to create a self-sustaining network, does it have to be that of bullying? Thats not how we engage with acquaintances, friends, colleagues offline.Then why do we do it online?
Image Source: AMW Safety Centre
PS: I came across an interesting study done recently on Civility in America, this talks about how Americans are tuning out of social networks (among other places) due to growing incivility, you may like to check it out here.