Mind your manners when you go online


Don’t let the Internet become a scapegraces’ free-for-allThe key rule is very simple.

In a bit to make cyberspace a better place to live, the Thai Netizen Network (TNN) has asked that we treat people we interact with on the Internet like people we deal with in real life.

It’s an uncomplicated, straightforward request, but idealistic and nearly impossible all the same. The Internet is changing the world in two dimensions, for the better and for the worse. Let’s forget the “better” part for a moment. There is no need to discuss what the Internet has been giving us. What it has been taking away seems trivial, yet slowly but surely many people have gone astray online.

Why? Because when we can do anything and suffer little or no consequence, it often brings out the worst in us. But the question is, can we change the way things are in cyberspace?

If  TNN’s move was not inspired by the political war of words which has been raging on the Internet for years, then it should take a look at a couple of web boards or web blogs. If people talked to each other like that in real life, there would be tragic outcomes. When it comes to Internet debate, reason often gives way to extreme hatred and absolute insult. And everyone can abuse everyone to the utmost and sleep well at night. The line is so easy to cross because, as TNN says, in our misguided thoughts an opponent may be something without a soul or feelings.

It is often said that people like to use false identities on the Internet, but the truth may be the opposite. Immune from responsibility for our actions, we may be revealing our true selves through “fake identities”. We do not have to care or feel much sympathy for those we don’t really know, and when we are angry, we can lash out at them with no holds barred. While a lot of people find creativity, community and inspiration on the Internet, many others go online to implement devious schemes, stalk or unleash anger and hatred.

TNN’s major rule – remember that people you interact with in cyberspace are real humans, so apply he same standards of behaviour as in real life – has a long way to go, if it is ever able to establish itself as a cyberspace doctrine at all, that is. Bad examples are all around. Go to YouTube and check out comments on videos about Thailand’s political crisis and imagine what would happen if those who posted them met in person. The comments tell us a lot of things, not least the fact that “netiquette” as advocated by TNN is the last thing on the minds of many of them.

The overwhelming benefits of the Internet have naturally outweighed concerns over, say, its ability to tempt even polite people “in real life” to use foul language for fun on the web. And the Internet’s nature as feeding on anonymity prevents users from really “knowing” one another. It’s one thing to debate the Thai political crisis with an office colleague who paid for the beer the night before, but it’s another to discuss Shinawatra Thaksin or Abhisit Vejjajiva with a lus980tn or 09oert who deems Thailand the worst dictatorial country in the world. On less sensitive matters, anonymous debate can still go downhill.

We have seen numerous examples of minor arguments developing into heated, uncivilised name-calling. On the Internet it’s so easy to lie, get upset, be angry, abuse and repay abuse with greater abuse. It doesn’t matter, because most people don’t care who their opponent is. Of course, we need to remind ourselves that our opponent is a human being like us. Netiquette remains an ideal, and there are plenty of “Internet-rights” activists out there who advocate anonymity for various reasons, some justified, others selfish.

There would be an international uproar if governments started thinking about giving all Internet users “true” identities, making their every act in cyberspace accountable. There are people who take exception to any “rule” and assert their right to do whatever they please. Almost no one seems to think netiquette urgent. One argument is that the freedom of expression provide a counter-force to all the ills that it generates itself. That assumes that human beings will still behave when they are allowed to act without having to face the consequences.

Advocates of netiquette, however, feel that if things continue at this rate, the “rough neighbourhood” of cyberspace will expand and may one day threaten who we are in real life. In this fast-evolving digital age, it will not take long to prove who is right and who is wrong.

By The Nation
Published on May 17, 2009


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