Parallel Worlds

If you’re reading this, you’re on the internet. You’ve seen a link posted either on Twitter or Facebook and, depending on your mood, you’ve clicked on it and now you’re watching me wave hello to you. *waves hello*

I can’t speak for everyone my age and older, but I think that’s rather remarkable. It would have been a thing of science fiction when I was growing up, as so much of the incidental impedimenta of today’s world – mobile phones, plasma televisions, Piers Morgan – is.

Maybe we forget how remarkable it is. Social media has become an everyday thing for many, many millions of people around the world. It’s simple to use and it can be furiously addictive. A significant percentage of Humanity now spends at least part of its time in communities which only exist in servers in California or Utah or Dushanbe or wherever the hell the physical bodies of Facebook and Twitter reside.

The exchange of information and ideas in these media has, quite possibly, reached a level where it’s now impossible for us to comprehend as anything other than ‘a lot.’ And it keeps on increasing as more and more people come online.

And nowhere is there an instruction manual about how to behave.

Oh, there are books and pamphlets and online courses galore about how to use Facebook for business and how to employ Twitter to publicise your ebook and stuff like that – how to exploit social media – but nothing about how to behave.

I wrote something a while ago about what I see as a disconnect between the online world and what’s often referred to as ‘RL’ – Real Life. I pondered a bit, inconclusively if I remember correctly, about whether some people regard the online world as somehow not real, a pocket universe, a kind of theme park where they can indulge themselves without fear of consequences. Certainly, the online world offers the user a degree of anonymity if they choose to take advantage of it, and it’s interesting to see what some people do with that.

I suppose a distant ancestor of today’s online troll would be the poison-pen letter writer of yore. The kind of person who would write a letter to the police or the Press – I saw one or two of them in my time – accusing someone of something, and signing it ‘A Friend,’ or ‘A Concerned Citizen.’ I can’t say how widespread this was, because as far as I know there are no statistics on the subject, but it was a familiar enough behaviour to enter the wider public consciousness.

The thing about writing a poison-pen letter is that it takes a long time and you have to buy a stamp and go out and put it in the letterbox and after all that effort only a handful of people might read it.

The internet is not like that.

Today, I can post a tweet that goes something like ‘Such-and-such is a child molester,’ even though I have no evidence that it’s true. I have just over a thousand followers on Twitter, and they’ll all see that, and some of them might retweet it so it spreads into their timelines, and so on and so forth. Eventually, a weird kind of friction takes over and the RTs slow down and stop, but a lot of people will have seen my accusation. Some of them might even believe it.

Now let’s imagine Twitter isn’t a colossal online forum. Let’s imagine it’s a big auditorium – let’s imagine it’s the auditorium at the Royal Festival Hall, for argument’s sake. The place is packed. And suddenly I stand up and point to another member of the audience and accuse them of being a child molester – again with no evidence.

The difference is? Well, the first difference is that online I can make my accusation behind an avatar and a made-up name. The second difference is that I wouldn’t do it at the Royal Festival Hall because the Royal Festival Hall is in Real Life and familiar Real Life rules apply. We know how to behave in Real Life – at least, most of us do. A set of rules and conventions has been thrashed out down the generations about what is and is not acceptable behaviour and, for the most part, we stick to those.

The online world hasn’t had those generations. For the most part, we’ve imported our standards of behaviour from the real world, and for the most part they work fine. Be nice to people. Have some respect. Don’t be an arsehole. But there is just enough disconnect, just enough of an angle between the online world and Real Life, to provide some wiggle-room if you choose to step outside Real Life norms, to at least justify it to yourself.

Social media, and Twitter in particular, tends to be a fast environment. There’s an element of performance and an element of competition to having an online presence. The temptation to be first to break a story is actually quite large, even if you haven’t checked it first. If you think someone else has checked the story, and it’s watertight, the temptation may be unbearable.

Which is how, I suspect, we get to Lord McAlpine. Wrongly identified as a child abuser in a television news investigation, his name – even though it wasn’t used when the investigation was broadcast – didn’t take long to find its way online. And with every retweet and repost it spread further and further and further.

I suppose, if we go back to our analogy of the Royal Festival Hall, we can ask ourselves whether someone else would have stood up after I made my accusation – someone I’d never seen before – and shouted, “Yes, he’s a child abuser!”? Would other strangers in the auditorium take up the cry, even without seeing any evidence? Possibly not. The internet is different. The environment is different. The rules are still not yet set in stone.

Now Lord McAlpine, and rightly so, is in a vengeful mood. I would be, in his shoes. He’s looking for redress from everyone who caused him to be identified as a child abuser, from the BBC themselves to the lowliest tweeter who RT’d the allegation. I saw something interesting on the news the other day; a legal expert was saying that, in law, repeating a libel is the same as saying it for the first time. Which is something I didn’t know. And I suspect something that everyone who reposted and RT’d his name didn’t know either. This means the whole business has the potential for being the largest libel case in history, although I suspect the sheer numbers involved mean that Lord McAlpine’s solicitors will be unable to pursue more than a representative few, pour decourageur les autres. I could be wrong, though. They might go after everyone, despite the logistics of it. Which would be a hell of a thing to see. Lord McAlpine said on Channel 4 News, “I’m determined to make such an impact on the Twittering fraternity that they start thinking about what they’re saying.” Which it might, but he can’t so it all the time. It affects this generation of twitterers, but the next will forget.

I’ve said before, and will probably say again until everyone expires of boredom, that the internet is a New Thing and we still haven’t worked out how to use it yet. No one wrote any ground rules for it before it was launched, and we’re making them up as we go along. Where Internet and Law collide, new stuff is having to be written, but where Internet and Etiquette collide the process is far more organic, far more trial-and-error. We’re still making things up as we go along.

It’s tempting – and I’m probably not the first to succumb to this temptation – to compare the online world to the island the boys are stranded on in Lord Of The Flies. Away from the constraints of civilisation, away from the guiding hands of adults, the boys make things up as they go along, and the society they eventually come up with is rather terrible.

If things were that simple with the internet it might not be so bad. But the reality is a lot more complex, a lot harder to grasp, a lot harder to predict. The online world is colossal, and it has grown up organically, chaotically, and for that reason it may be impossible to change it in any meaningful way in response to the way it impacts on Real Life. I think it responds poorly to regulation.

In which case there are going to be more Lord McAlpines.

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