The internet is a wonderful thing. I think that the sum total of the good and bad that the internet has done will be positive in the long run. It is a privilege to live in a time where technology has enabled so much freedom to share useful information, from academic institutions down to individuals who love their chosen subjects enough to have studied them in great depth and who can share their findings with others. I hope that as more and more of the world is connected to the internet, the good will continue to grow.
I'm afraid there is a big but. It could even be spelt with two t's, since it generally leaves me feeling like I've been exposed to the excreta of the human hivemind.
First of all there's the crime. I'm not an expert on this so I'll gloss over it and allow people involved in police work to give far better accounts. I've been told that there are not enough police in the UK to handle the levels of crime, of all different kinds, that are being conducted online. If this is true, then the internet is in need of taming, a bit like the Wild West, before we can fully enjoy the benefits that it can bring. How? I don't know!
Then there's the bullying. People used to just get bullied at school or at work. Now it follows them home and hounds them across the internet. Children are being driven to suicide by this. Curiously, online bullies are spread across all age groups, not just kids, so there's no easy cultural or social ill for the media to blame (video games, working parents, teachers etc etc). A particularly good blog post, which then went viral and triggered a lovely, positive response from the hivemind, can be found here: http://www.amandapalmer.net/blog/20130105/
And this leads me to the behaviour that prompted this post. I've been an active netizen since 2002. I've revelled in debates, commented on news items and generally enjoyed explanding my mind and hearing others' opinions for all of that time. Very early on, I was introduced to the rules of debate (http://www.fallacyfiles.org/taxonomy.html) and taught not to devolve into insulting people just because their opinion differed to mine. The forum that I frequented at the time was relatively civilized for a year or two, because the moderators enforced the rules of debate with great energy. Sadly that forum eventually collapsed and I haven't found another one where you could have a sensible debate for 10 years.
At the same time, more and more people have joined online debates, on every newspaper website, blog or forum and I've noticed some disturbing trends. Let's take a look at some innocuous stories first. A professor who is studying the internet to try to work out what makes some stories go viral is approached by his kids and asked for a puppy. He thinks, based on his experience, that he can slow them down by saying "if you get 1 million likes on Facebook, you can have a puppy". His estimate that that would buy him some time so he could get a puppy in Spring instead of now backfired and they got 1 million likes in 7 hours. An amusing little tale, which should have been enjoyable, cute etc. What kind of comments does this kind of article attract online?
"The kids were cute, and good for them for showing they could do it. But....