Tag Archives: Internet

The Quandary of Internet Openness

Sleep is the enemy by Hobvias Sudoneighm via flickr

“Sleep is the enemy,” by Hobvias Sudoneighm via flickr

The Internet is a strange animal: dedicated to free expression, it also protects bigotry and harassment. It has birthed revolutions and movements such as the Arab Spring and #BlackLivesMatter, and it offers a sense of community to those who feel isolated or alone. At the same time, however, the anonymity it affords makes the Internet a platform for racism, misogyny, homophobia, bullying, and other forms of aggression. On the Internet, values of free expression are pitted against those of providing protection and comfort for its users, and it is unclear how one is to be upheld without coming at the cost of the other. The recent departure of Ellen Pao as CEO of Reddit serves as a compelling illustration of this quandary.

Early in July, news broke that Ellen Pao, interim CEO of the popular online messaging board, Reddit, had stepped down. The move came as a response to the outcry against Pao and her administrative team for recent decisions made at the company, including the firing of Victoria Taylor, a Reddit executive who was popular among community members. Pao also came under fire for initiating efforts to reduce harassment and hostility on Reddit by removing offensive content from boards, including entire “subreddits” (users’ posts organized around single topics) containing racist, fat shaming, homophobic and transphobic content. In June, a Change.org petition appeared calling for Pao’s ouster, alleging that Reddit had “entered into a new age of censorship” since her arrival in November 2014. The petition eventually gathered more than 200,000 signatures. Around the same time, hundreds of subreddits were made unavailable by the website’s volunteer moderators in response to Taylor’s sudden and unexplained firing. Prompted to respond to these demonstrations, Pao issued a public apology to the community in which she acknowledged that she and her team had “screwed up” and vowed to maintain better communication between administrators and the community. Nonetheless, Pao resigned mere days later.

Despite its size—in 2013, Reddit boasted 731 million unique visitors and 56 billion page views—the community of users is tight-knit and loyal, bound together by its devotion to the value of free discourse and a commitment to keeping Reddit relevant as an information resource. Its members are also known for identifying with and uniting for causes (however superfluous). As the Ellen Pao incident proved, Reddit users are also wary of corporate intervention, distrustful that paid administrators always know what is best. Their response to what they deemed unnecessary “censorship” and a lack of transparency served as a check on Reddit’s corporate power over the community it created. To the common Redditor, this was a movement for the protection of Reddit itself. But to hear Ellen Pao tell the tale, the efforts against her amount to little more than online bullying.

In a July 16 Washington Post online op-ed piece discussing the events surrounding her resignation, Pao claims to have received harassing messages and death threats from angry Reddit users and describes herself as a victim of “one of the largest trolling attacks in history.” (A “troll” is someone who intentionally provokes and harasses others in online forums. Protected by anonymity, trolls often bait and attack their targets with provocative, bigoted language.) Exercising her right to free expression, Pao spotlights in her editorial how her security and peace of mind had been compromised by people who took advantage of a public forum to attack her and others. Her story is reflective of the difficulty of, as she puts it,  “balancing free expression with privacy and the protection of participants.”

Pao warns that “the trolls are winning,” that the value of free expression has come to take primacy over the protection of the Internet’s users. At the root of trolling lies the belief that expression can and should be unfettered, unconstrained even by civility or decency, and that those who might be offended should just “stay away.” But staying away from the Internet is simply unthinkable to those for whom being online is an integral part of daily life. To engage with others on the Internet is to recognize and accept, perhaps uneasily, that interaction comes with risk—just as it does in face-to-face encounters. The anxiety is legitimate and real, but if we want the Internet to remain free and open for everyone, is it right to exclude bullies and jerks? The Reddit community’s message to Ellen Pao was that she couldn’t have it both ways—either the Internet is free and open or it is not.

It would be inaccurate (and uncivil) to dismiss all of the more than 200,000 signers of the Change.org petition against Pao as mere Internet trolls. In truth, the majority of the signers were likely just concerned users who felt affronted by the changes being made to their cherished website. Be that as it may, in uniting to remove Pao, the Reddit community stood not only against “censorship,” but also against efforts to make the website safer for all of its users. More than anything, what this case reveals is that online communities have the power to enact real-world change—that the Internet has a voice. The question that remains is whether or not this a voice with which we would like to identify.

Joseph Kreiter is a third year student at the University of Virginia and a summer intern at The Hedgehog Review.

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Mirror, Mirror

"All is Vanity" by C. Allan Gilbert. Wikimedia Commons.

“All is Vanity” by C. Allan Gilbert. Wikimedia Commons.

In the second episode of UK horror anthology series Black Mirror, we’re given the story of Bingham Madsen, who lives in the future of the Internet of Things. Every surface is an interactive screen, even the walls of his apartment, and every screen is playing advertising, pornography, or talent show-style entertainment. Eventually, Madsen snaps, plotting to get onto the talent show that almost everybody watches and kill himself on television.

He succeeds at getting on television, but after he delivers himself of an angry rant, one of the judges offers him a show of his own. By the end of the episode, Madsen has been wholly incorporated into the system he despises, which packages his angry rants alongside the rest of its entertainments. The system can be “won,” he learns, but it can’t be beaten. It certainly can’t be changed. If anything, Madsen’s ranting has done nothing but make the rest of the populace more complacent.

It’s a story that functions not only as a wry comment on Black Mirror itself—which is steeped in contempt for technology and for modern media culture—but also on the career of its creator, Charlie Brooker, longstanding British television critic and crank. Brooker’s own rants about modern media ran on the BBC, first on his show Screenwipe and later on How TV Ruined Your Life.

While Black Mirror is, in one sense, old news—this episode ran in 2011—its recent addition to Netflix has caused the show to gain a new wave of attention. If you feel dubious about technology—and who doesn’t?—Black Mirror is a cathartic show to watch, at first. But it’s full of a sense of its own irrelevance: Even if you understand the various mechanisms that push you this way and that in your life, and even if you can explain these mechanisms to others, it won’t do you any good. You’re still stuck. There’s also no possibility here that we can use our new technological platforms in a counter-cultural way.

Whatever will happen to us, the show claims, as we grow more attached to our devices—whatever it is, it’s already happened. All that’s left is to experience, if not enjoy, the ride. How, then, ought one understand a television show that informs you repeatedly that it’s a waste of your time? Continue reading

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