Tweeting Toward Bethlehem

With social media fueling changes both trivial and seismic, we need to think about a new public ethic for the Internet age.

By Ethan Porter

Tagged Arab SpringDemocracyThe Internet

I hope the reader will pardon a cliché. For too long, references to William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming” have been the erudite, tired way of expressing one’s discomfort with world affairs. “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” bewails the poet. When Yeats was writing, the embers of World War I were still flickering across the continent. With “the Second Coming…at hand,” what “rough beast” was approaching?

I don’t think I’ve been alone in recent months as I’ve found myself turning these words over in my mind. The furious democratic energy pouring out of the Arab world, followed by the catastrophe in Japan, led Newsweek to stamp “Apocalypse Now” on its cover. Of course, that was hyperbole. But it was not entirely off-key. What has unfolded across the Greater Middle East produces two seemingly conflicted responses. On the one hand, we obviously cheer the toppling of dictators and the demands for democracy. Yet in the face of all that has become unsettled, it is only natural for us to be unsettled, too. Something genuinely new is announcing itself. We are living on the edge of, and in the midst of, sweeping global change. To think in Yeats’s terms: What is the rough beast of the present moment? How will it reveal itself, and how might it be tamed?

Central to the complexities of this moment is the power of the Internet. As Yeats and his contemporaries were grappling with a grand shift in technological capacity, so are we. It was only 20 years ago that the World Wide Web was mostly just a novel idea than a tool; now it is inescapable, as much a part of everyday life in America as the television or automobile. In the decade just completed, the developing world, while still lagging behind the developed, began to catch up. Measures of Internet penetration replaced measures of electrification as a basic barometer of modernity.

Without the Internet, optimism about the current situation would not exist. Indeed, the revolutions themselves would not exist. In Egypt, while opponents of the regime had coordinated behind the scenes for years, it was the Internet that allowed them to unfurl their rebel flag in public—to mobilize enormous numbers of people in organized political action. It was only fitting that a Google executive, Wael Ghonim, was one of the leaders of the revolutions. And it was completely understandable that, in the ecstasy following Hosni Mubarak’s departure, a father named his newborn daughter Facebook, in honor of the website that had been so important to the movement.

Over the past few months, the democratic character of the Internet, and social networking in particular, has been confirmed. By design, Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk are conducive to people coming together. In the American context, oftentimes this means only for celebrity gossip, the selling of tchotchkes, or perhaps a citywide snowball fight. Other times, for something more: A ballot initiative or even a presidential campaign can gain steam because of its Facebook page. But when the stakes are extraordinary—democracy, life, death—the power of the tool is amplified accordingly. And not just in one part of the world, but many; the piffles that often dominate Twitter’s list of “trending topics” are toppled, as #JustinBieber is replaced with #GreenRevolution or #February11. That old protest proclamation, “The whole world is watching,” is truer now than it ever was.

Because of social networking, the efforts of activists living under oppressive regimes, who once worked in secret out of necessity, are wrenched into the public square. This is a different medium from television. Interactivity is not an add-on or bonus feature; it is the feature. Perhaps because of the limitations of this interactivity—Twitter restricts users to 140-character comments, and Facebook is only slightly less restraining—the goals of the protestors have been strikingly straightforward. No grand manifestos or universal philosophical creeds are to be found. Instead, calls abound for merely adequate public goods and services, access to food and water, and the end of shameless corruption among government officials. (Even offline, in paper documents only now being translated by, the stated goals of the Egyptian revolution seem equally concrete.)

These are goals, elementary and essential, that most people can get behind. As such, they are useful for group formation, especially when broadcast online. The result is, yes, free association of a kind not possible under tyranny, but also something more affirmative—a democratic organism, linking disparate individuals together and practically bursting with political possibility. For evidence, only take a glance at video of the Libyan city of Benghazi shortly after it was liberated by protesters. An ocean of people as far and wide as the eye can see has taken possession of the streets and is rejoicing in song. They are, hand-in-hand, celebrating their groupness, and the power that it has given them. Working together, they have achieved—peacefully and democratically—what Moammar Gadhafi had denied them for decades.

Here is where the picture turns gray. As the group becomes easier to harness, those who remain outside it, or those in other groups, become easier to identify, and perhaps even target. They are different, and because they are different, they are unwelcome; difference becomes more vulnerable as the group grows stronger. Thinking of the Greeks, Hannah Arendt once wrote, “Large numbers of people, crowded together, develop an almost irresistible inclination toward despotism.” That this is an ancient problem makes it no less relevant today.

Already there are the first glimpses of its appearance in post-Mubarak Egypt. Crowds of the Muslim majority have been battling crowds of the Christian minority throughout the country. So far, at least 12 deaths have been associated with these clashes, with scores more injured and arrested. Churches have been attacked, and one Christian politician was targeted by rioters, it seems because of his religion. Of course, this kind of behavior after the fall of a brutal dictator, one who achieved social harmony with his fist, is to be expected. But consider the cautionary tweet of Mohammed ElBaradei, the normally reserved Nobel Prize-winning supporter of the revolution now running for president. “Urgent measures required to combat religious extremism and intolerance before Egypt slides into the dark ages,” he exclaimed.

“Intolerance”—ElBaradei’s word of choice—was apropos. Closer to home, we’ve become accustomed to an Internet-fueled intolerance. While essential to commerce, education, and leisure, the Web in America has also given over vast swaths of its territory to roving bands of angry men and women who persecute, sometimes quite literally, the different and the odd. The charitable critic would say that the Internet is only a tool, facilitating behavior that, however nasty, is nothing new. But still: This behavior exacts a devastating toll. Think of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who, last fall, committed suicide after his classmates used their webcam to reveal his homosexuality to the world. Or think of Megan Meier, the 13-year-old who took her own life after being bullied over the Internet. The less charitable critic might allege that the Internet is generating hateful behavior, predicated on antipathy to difference, all on its own. Such behavior would not occur otherwise, and certainly not to the same degree.

The less charitable critic would have a point. It’s time to confront the fact that—perhaps for reasons of technological architecture, perhaps because of some innate human characteristics—the Web has a tendency to spiral into nastiness. Many of the most popular YouTube videos, from Rebecca Black to Chocolate Rain, are popular because they’re considered entertainingly awful and worthy only of derision. We are not laughing with them, after all. Many Internet comment boards are cesspools of personal invective, in which it almost becomes better for one’s sanity to think that the participants are playing some sort of game of one-upmanship, with the victory going to the more needlessly vituperative party. If the tone of some message boards were indicative of the tone of most discussions in America, nobody would ever want to talk to anybody else, ever.

And this is the fear, is it not—that the nastiness of the Internet, the nastiness we’ve come to expect and accept, will bleed over into the real world? But who is to say that that’s not already happening? In the United States, the first presidential campaign dominated by the Internet, during which a candidate used the medium to generate enormous excitement and huge crowds, was followed by a time of stark division. The Internet made Obama, and the Internet made the birthers—a movement dedicated to proving, in the face of all empirical evidence, that one man is too unlike us to lead our national group, using the Internet to disseminate its ostensibly disqualifying untruths. (And even before he secured the nomination, even while attracting hundreds of thousands of people to hear him speak, Obama was subject to a vociferous chain email campaign dedicated to advancing the same basic libel.) If Facebook and the like can spread revolutionary democratic fervor of a type that we can all get behind, it only seems logical to think that they are more than capable of spreading something darker, too.

So as democracy triumphs, liberalism, insofar as it entails protection of minority rights, is at risk. The groups empowered by the Internet may soon come to do regretful things, as indeed they already are. But let us not get too bleak. Those who preach despair as a way of life, or rely on it for newsstand sales, fail to acknowledge that the worst outcome, the most dreaded, is never a foregone conclusion. Think back to Yeats’s poem, and its status as cliché. What is often forgotten is that, despite its apocalyptic tone, the final sentence is not a declaration, but a question. The rough beast has not yet appeared. Yeats was right to think that, despite the optimism accompanying the recent birth of the League of Nations, despite the seemingly ever-forward march of science and progress, dark times lay ahead. As we all know, in less than two decades, the rough beast would emerge with a vengeance, plunging the world into a war even more gruesome than the last. But certainly none of that was preordained.

Today, we would be remiss to look at the evidence and declare it best if everyone went home, unplugged their computers, and turned off from the idea of ever coming together again. This remains true, even as religious minorities are persecuted, or if, say, some of the rebels in Libya begin massacring loyalists. What the Internet makes possible should not be unlearned. The challenge of the present moment is to refuse to surrender to the worst sort of large group action now on display in some parts of the world, while also remaining committed to the idea of an open, democratic public space. In short, we need a public ethic for the Internet age—one that recognizes the power and the limitations of the Internet.

This means threading the needle, delicately but purposefully, between democracy and mobocracy. So, by all means, we should celebrate the new chances for democratic action, but we should not forgive intolerance as its pesky but ultimately inconsequential byproduct. In the name of good humor or even revolution, intolerance need not be tolerated. A public ethic for today must make two demands, for democratic action and a minimum of tolerance, without letting one absorb the other.

The ultimate purpose of such an ethic would be to fashion and preserve a public space that can exist alongside the Internet and not descend into the sort of sectarian violence we’re now seeing in Egypt. In the service of this goal, a norm against anonymity must be encouraged. Websites that do not rely on anonymity in the service of an obvious public good—to protect whistle-blowers, to give refuge to victims of domestic abuse—should require their members to attach public identities to their Internet personalities. The non-anonymous norm need not rely on legal names, but instead insist upon a consistent public identity, so that your Internet contributions can be traced back to you, and so that your real-world identity is known to those who inquire. A public square reliant on anonymity is hardly worthy of the name.

Chris Poole, the founder of 4chan, a site most famous for its anonymous message board, has defended anonymity by arguing it is a means to “authenticity.” At a recent conference during which he laid out his argument, Poole declared, “The cost of failure is really high when you’re contributing as yourself…To fail in an environment where you’re contributing with your real name is costly.” But these points are actually arguments against anonymity. Its prevalence debases our discourse, lowering the stakes so that a prankishness that often devolves into nastiness comes to dominate. In public argument, in most cases, the cost of failure should be high—and so should the rewards of success.

Were a norm of non-anonymity to take hold, the public square’s gains in quality might match what it has recently achieved in quantity. Real people, not merely Internet pseudonyms, would be staking out positions and would be held accountable for them. Groupness, like the Internet, is not going anywhere. But the costs and rewards of group membership—and affiliating oneself with the activities that one group or another has undertaken—can be further underlined. The challenge of building a public ethic today, with the power of the group so strong, will be carving out a space for the preservation of the different individual or group, a space where he or she can be treated with dignity and associate with others as he or she wishes—to choose to belong to groups, or not.

For too long, some liberals have scoffed at the idea of modus vivendi—the notion that our differences may be too deep to overcome and so the best we can hope for is to live together in spite of them. These liberals believe we are capable of more. But as the Internet and its attendant consequences conquer the globe, this humble idea looks much more appealing. If the Christians in Egypt band together, and this prevents them from being persecuted by the majority, so be it. That may be all we can ask for or reasonably expect.

Differences are no less deserving of respect because they are unbridgeable. On the contrary, accepting differences on their own terms may be the highest good in this day and age. This means setting aside one’s preconceived notions about how we might bridge the gap, and coming to truly accept the distance between peoples. The triumphalists argue that the Internet is bringing the world closer together, turning the globe into an interconnected electronic village, and to a point they are right. But interconnection does not imply that all identities can be dissolved into a blob of broadband. That which is so unique it cannot be readily absorbed will, by its nature, persist for far longer than the Internet revolution. To appreciate it will require us to reclaim the oft-neglected art of reflection: an act that forces us to confront what we don’t know and can’t anticipate. In the process, we may implicate ourselves, and come to learn the limits of our own knowledge.

Think back to the Middle East. We know, as of now, that the utopian dreams nearly obtained over the past several months are not much closer to reality than before. These days, the most idealistic American is likely to find him or herself disappointed. Already, the post-Mubarak regime is locking up its critics; the rebels in Libya are not vessels of pure hope. Our dreams are not completely synonymous with theirs, just as yours are not completely synonymous with mine. We do not know much more than that. We do not know, really, what will happen next. The exciting and unsettling fact about the Internet has been its capacity for reinvention, which has often resulted in unpredictability. One point of a public ethic in the Internet age, it seems to me, is to comprehend the infinite possibilities at each of our fingertips. We can write, and write off, the rough beast as we so choose.

Read more about Arab SpringDemocracyThe Internet

Ethan Porter Ethan Porter is an assistant professor at George Washington University. He is the author of The Consumer Citizen (Oxford), from which this essay is adapted.

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