Sign up with your email address to be the first to know about new products, VIP offers, blog features & more.

Jason Calcanis and Lord of the Flies

I’m on Jason Calcanis’ mailing list (you should be as well – you can sign up here), and today got a long missive from him that I think is quite important and goes to the heart of what I want to fight by moving our interactions back to conversation. Here’s the nut graf:

Josh’s experiments in 2000, during which he and his cohorts became obsessed with their view counts, parallels today’s blogging, social media and YouTube “arms race.” In his experiment, the technology robbed the subjects–and their audience–of every last ounce of empathy.
Digital communications is a wonderful thing–at least at the start. Everyone participating in digital communities is eventually introduced to Godwin’s Law: At some point, a participant, or more typically his or her thinking, will be compared to the Nazis. But that’s only part of the breakdown. Eventually, you see the effect of what I’ll call Harris’ Law: At some point, all humanity in an online community is lost, and the goal becomes to inflict as much psychological suffering as possible on another person.

Jason seems to see little hope; the problem is built into the structure of medium.

I’ve come to recognize a new disorder, the underlying cause of Harris’ Law. This disease affects people when their communication moves to digital, and the emotional cues of face-to-face interaction–including tone, facial expression and the so called “blush response”–are lost (More: on YouTube ).
In this syndrome, the afflicted stops seeing the humanity in other people. They view individuals as objects, not individuals. The focus on repetitive behaviors–checking email, blogging, twittering and retiring andys–combines with an inability to feel empathy and connect with people.
Now, I’m not using this new term to make light of Asperger’s Syndrome. Far from it, I jsut can’t deny the fact that the evolution of people’s behavior online eventually parallels Asperger’s. I feel I’m within my rights as pundit to reconstitute the idea of Asperger’s to explain my own experiences and thoughts. Although I’ll understand it if you, as someone affected in some way by Asperger’s, claim your right to flame me for “hijacking” the disease. Such is the life of linguists in the age of sound-bites over debate, and skimming over reading.

And for him, part of the solution is the end of anonymity.

The bullying in Korea has become so intense that you’re now required to use your Social Security Number to sign up for a social network. This lack of anonymity is one of the most enlightened things I’ve heard of from one of the most advanced–if not the most advanced–Internet communities in the world.
Ownership of one’s behavior? Who knew?!?!?
I’m sure some of the wacky Internet contingents will flame me for saying that anonymity is a bad thing, but the fact is that anonymous environments create the environments in which Godwin’s and Harris’ Laws apply. What’s the point of starting these communities if they eventually end in pain and suffering? Anonymity is overrated in my book. (Whistle-blowers are an exception, and last time I checked, anyone can anonymously drop an envelope in a mailbox, so it’s not like the Internet needs to be there for that).

Now I don’t like anonymity on the Internet; I don’t mind pseudonymity – detaching my online persona from my meatspace one – but it’s important to me that commenters on my political blog, for example, maintain a constant, identifiable identity. Because that way they build a reputation.

And that’s the interesting thing.

People who live in small communities have reputations and are stuck with them. That can be a bad thing – why shouldn’t the gas station owner’s son be able to date the banker’s daughter? Or a good one – that guy is an irresponsible drunk, and I’m not going to trust him to watch my kids.

And so people move to the city, where reputation is diffuse and temporary.

One consequence of diffuse reputation and trust is that we move everything to the realm of explicit contract – we overlegalize everything (which is what we’ve been doing for some time now). because if I can’t trust you, I’d damn well better have a really thick contract that covers our relationship. But that means that when we’re in areas outside of the law – well, we can pretty much do as we please, and to heck with the other guy.

That behavior – jamming ahead in lines at Jamba Juice (something I’ve seen), talking trash online – happens in large part because it’s consequence-free. And s we created onlinespaces where more and more people could interact, it became apparent tha ta lot of these people had no idea about how to behave in public.

I had dinner with Amy Alkon last month, and we talked about this, and she discussed her decision that people who were rude in her presence were going to hear about it.

I, in turn, told her about Dog Shit Girl, and the behavior-norming power that publicity can have.

And I really believe that.

I think that as our identities become more and more public – and this our reputations become more and more persistent – we’re starting to see cases where the extreme examples of the kind of behavior Jason deplores have consequences. A good example of this? Deb Frisch, for one. An unhinged troll on Jeff Goldstein’s blog Protein Wisdom, she ultimately lost her job because of her online actions.

We’re in the situation where the social norms haven’t caught up with how we live; we’re living ‘The Lord of the Flies.’

But that’s unsustainable. And maybe I’m a Pollyanna, but I believe that there are far more people with an innate sense of decency than without. I just think that we haven’t found our voices yet. And a big part of what social media can bring to human communities are the tools whereby we can.

As identities online are becoming more persistent, we’re beginning to attach all the fragments of behavior that we’ve left all over the ‘Net, and some people are finding that has consequences. And I like that idea.
When I talk about conversation as a model for online behavior, I’m arguing that much as in small towns where your actions have persistent consequences, we’re going to grow a generation of people who start to see that their actions have consequences as new – more positive – forms of behavior will come forward.

Etiquette will no longer be something just for debutantes. And for all of us, I think that’s a good thing. Start with your own online behavior, and then think about what you can do to let others know when theirs steps over the line.