No one is immune to 2020: Staying human online

For the most part, I consider myself resilient despite the political, social, and economic chaos that is 2020.  I’m not jaded.  I am optimistic.  I still believe in community. 

Well, as it turns out, I may have been kidding myself. 

I just read the first 3 chapters of Howard Rheingold’s book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (2014).  The idealistic way in which Rheingold describes online interactions is arguably NOT aligned with what I see post-2016.  He talks of a ‘culture of participation,’ fostered by online communities working toward knowledge sharing and critical thinking.  He speaks of digital knowledge sharing as a wonderous, limitless add-on to what and how we learn in real life, and how much we all gain by taking part.  “Knowing how to blog, tweet, wiki, innovate, program, and/or organize online can lead to political, cultural, and economic value” (111).  Even though I am a student, scholastic, reliable content is not the majority of what I encounter when I’m online.  I see throngs of anonymous contributors shitposting, sharing unsubstantiated “articles” and starting arguments in comment sections.  Rheingold, forging ahead, gushes about our potential: “web culture has made it clear that if it is easy and inexpensive enough to contribute to cooperative enterprises, many people will choose to do so for a variety of reasons, including reputation, altruism, curiosity, learning, a sense of reciprocating value to a community that provides value, as part of a game, and contributing something for public use that you had to do for your own purposes anyway” (112).  Rheingold doesn’t even use the words ‘toxic’ and ‘trolls’ until after page 100!  I, on the other hand, see people looking to stir the pot, using language not said aloud in talking to both their social circles and complete strangers.  My response to his reading got me thinking about my role and my responsibilities as an online presence overall. 

First, I need to be more optimistic and proactive – find and support online education communities like schools, Google Scholar, reliable news outlets, and constructive social media content.  I KNOW there’s good stuff out there.  I know I don’t just have to put on blinders and block everyone with whom I disagree on social media; I can be equally discerning and protective of what I encounter, and I should not expect the impossible from where I normally surf. I can find blogs, subreddits, and pages that are looking to inform, not upset. I can turn my time online into a more productive activity.  I can get on board with Rheingold’s ideas.

One place to start might be what Chris Anderson calls “The Long Tail” in his 2004 article of the same name.  For Anderson, the long tail is what exists outside of the most popular culture; “the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream” (1).  Finding your own healthy place online can take some digging, as what we’re fed isn’t always what we need.  “We equate mass market with quality and demand, when in fact it often just represents familiarity, savvy advertising, and broad if somewhat shallow appeal” (10). Anderson writes about how markets continually change with the ubiquity of availability and potential revenue online, where products are unconstrained by the size and cost of physical space.  This helps us to find what we should be consuming on a more personal level and engaging with others that also care enough to contribute to that community.  We can choose a new jumping off point.  “Great long tail businesses can then guide consumers further afield by following the contours of their likes and dislikes, easing their exploration of the unknown” (24). Before long, it’s possible to change your entire feed.

I want to be informed and rational (and maybe even a little happy?) when I’m online.  I want to support others looking to do the same.  Creating a new experience might be as easy as clearing my cache, cookies, and search history and starting from a healthier point, even if that point is obscure.  Using an incognito window to indulge in guilty pleasures and gossip can satisfy whatever brought me there while maintaining accountability for what I see most often.

About Kim Smith mccroryk0613 Grad School: Technical and Professional Communications Madison, WI

Posted on September 20, 2020, in Social Media, Society and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I know 2020 has been a hard year for everyone, and in my mind, I feel like that should make people want to come together. In the midst of a pandemic and social movements surrounding racial injustices’, I would like to think that many online users would have been displaying more camaraderie, compassion and teamwork, but instead the internet is filled with trolls, inaccurate articles and misspelled posts. You mentioned in your post that you don’t have to block someone who doesn’t express the same views as you, and I respect that option as well. Rather than blocking, I do think that having a healthy conversation about differing opinions can be enlightening; but the key word there is healthy, and I don’t see a lot of that online recently. More finger pointing than anything. Which is why I enjoyed reading about how your response to this was to analyze your own behavior and to find a new online environment for yourself that you can contribute to and enjoy. Have you tried clearing your cache and/or cookies since writing this? Have you noticed anything different or new that is appearing in your searches? I never have, but definitely should as I can only imagine it will make my online experience feel safer and more pleasant!

    • Kim Smith mccroryk0613

      I haven’t yet cleared our my history. My laziness is currently winning the battle with my wont of a better experience online. This weekend is my deadline, though. I want to immerse myself in what I’m learning to make weekly writing ideas flow.

  2. I’m glad you pointed out the significant mark in online behavior since Rheingold published his book. However, he’s always been and will be an optimistic guy. After all, he’s one of the early members of the WELL

    I might have mentioned this in the welcome screencast, but I’ve debated taking Howard’s book off the reading list since so much with social media and online interactions has changed, but I kept it as a way to set up the ideas of digital literacies. And as much as some of those seem obvious to people who grew up online, I like the course to begin with readings like his to set up how academics talk about internet cultures.

    Something that is NOT assigned this term, which I usually rely on, is the 2007 “web 2.0” debate between Keen and Weinberger, and the more I think about it, I think the “unflattering” portrait Keen paints is very much what you describe in your 3rd paragraph. Give it a read when you can. It’s in the Social Media Adoption & Uses module in Canvas.

    • Kim Smith mccroryk0613

      It’s interesting in the debate between Keen and Weinberger (The Good, The Bad, and ‘The Web 2.0′, 2007) that a concept like The Long Tail can exist within individual creators’ repertoires, too. “With the Web, we can still listen to the world’s greatest, but we can find others who touch us even though their technique isn’t perfect.” Even one great song by one lesser known artist can draw attention to their other work, which may otherwise go undiscovered. It’s one of the many reasons I’m thankful that we no longer have to buy entire albums for the inevitable “song that I love” and the secondary “song I like, too” intermixed with the “songs I could live without.” Impatience is not always a virtue, but hey, we’re all busy.

    • Kim Smith mccroryk0613

      I just found this on p253 LOL:
      “I have been accused of being an optimist, which I am not”
      “Nevertheless, I choose to be hopeful”
      I’d consider that a battle of semantics. Face it Rheingold, you’re a happy camper.

  3. Hi Kim,
    I can’t tell you how much I relate to everything you’ve just expressed here. Yes, Rheingold (2012) does seem to have rose-colored glasses when it comes to his outlook on engaging with online communities – he is certainly an optimist. I too find people can often be too bold with their convictions in the online platform. I find them ruder, far more aggressive, and downright childish in their engagements. Fortunately or unfortunately, we’re going through this nightmare of 2020 and the cherry on top is it’s an election year – hooray? This only adds to the “shitposting”, as you’ve so accurately described it, that we see throughout the many comments sections of the internet and of course the hell hole that can be social media right now. Luckily, I, or we, are not the only one who notices how loose platforms like Facebook can be about misinformation and hate speech. Larger brands have noticed as well and are transitioning away from the platform:
    It doesn’t solve the world’s issues, but certainly disengaging with a toxic environment is a beneficial start.
    But this is why I appreciate your post and the reality of engaging online that so contradicts the world Rheingold seems to have thrived within. I appreciate your pointing out Rheingold not mentioning ‘toxic’ or ‘trolls’ until after page 100. Part of Rheingold’s text is certainly the focus on how to effectively utilize the web for growing and developing. Yet, I too, while reading it continuously thought, “the web he’s referring to is the web of a simpler time.” His perspective doesn’t always reflect my current experience with the web. Now, this isn’t to say I don’t have communities I frequent which are more behaved than a ‘stirring-the-pot’ political post on Facebook. It seems, however, that nowhere on the interest is particularly safe. Even within the more guarded, niche (long tail) communities I engage in, the culture of “ok boomer” and “ok karen” still sink in. Sometimes, I just want to communicate online without feeling like we have to be funny or snarky, clever, or witty. I just want to talk about things; engage and learn from one another. These are the types of communities Rheingold seems to frequent. Either that or his meditation has helped him master filtering out the noise.

  4. Rheingold’s optimism and the reality of the world wide web will likely remain as they’re portrayed in the comments above: far different from one another. Giving him credit where credit is due: Rheingold’s discussion does adequately describe areas of the web that do exist. There are forums, blogs, wikis and the like that provide online knowledge adventurers places to discover and share. It is important to note though, that they they exist because of the freedom of the net. This is likely the only common link they share in common with the doomsayers and their content that lacks credibility, integrity and plenty more nouns. Despite this, it is important to note that a considerable underpinning of our democracy is free speech and the web is arguably a young and developing space for dialogue and debate. One of the only philosophers to stay with me since undergrad was John Stuart Mill. He discussed the “Marketplace of Ideas,” where individuals with the right to free speech were provided the ability to speak their mind freely. In the process of doing so, their understanding of fact, values, morals, etc would be shaped by others around them. Only after voicing themselves and their ideas, others around them would respond and this would consequently lead the first person to alter their understanding. Whether you call it educated, revisioned, or sharpened, the concept of free speech was integral to personal beliefs and values. Given the extreme parameters of the web, I’m not sure we’ll see much improvement in the noise. But the prudent person hopefully prepares for inappropriate content and learns to judge sources in order to participate in the many dialogues offered online.

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