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August 14, 2012

Can We Blame Facebook? – Has Social Media Made Us All Online Jerks?

It’s no surprise that the social networking world can be a mean and spiteful place, just like how any large gathering of people can turn out that way.

There are vain and shallow people. Also some very dumb people, who love to revel in their reckless ignorance. For every funny status update or tweet, there are just as many if not more condemnations. For every kind comment, there’s at least one smart ass insult. For every wise kernel of wisdom, there’s a braggart boasting about their day.

So are the various social networks to blame? Did they make us more shallow, vain, impatient, and judgmental?

Stone Age Jerks

Social networking is like the new elementary school recess, and because of that I think of cyber-bullying. It can ruin reputations, divide social groups, and even lead to depression or worse. Because it can be done anonymously and asynchronously, it can be done by anyone at anytime. It’s a terrible thing.

But it’s not new. Bullying has existed in “real life” long before computers were ever in households. Having access to a victim on Facebook though has admittedly made the act of bullying far easier.

Gossip has existed as long as there’s been scandalous rumor to spread. What took hours by word-of-mouth to spread now only takes minutes, even seconds, by reading someone’s status update and sharing it.

Vanity has always been with us, but before we took photos of ourselves and posted them for everyone to see we just admired ourselves in the mirror.

Our bad sides have always been there. The development of online social networking hasn’t changed any of that behavior at their core, because before we had online technologies we “social networked” amongst ourselves in person, and to all the same detriments. All Facebook and Twitter did were make things easier and faster to spread. And because anything online can gain exposure so much faster than in person, anything for good or bad gets that same rapid limelight.

Don’t Feed The Trolls

But what about trolling? The anonymity of the Web is purported to have encouraged more of this obnoxious and annoying behavior and heckling. So has it?

Well, being able to troll with impunity definitely gives an incentive, because who likes to get caught? But considering that trolling has not abated with the advent of social networking, which sought to de-anonymize the Web by having us use our real identities, perhaps such is not the case. People troll because they can, jerks will act like jerks because they are jerks. And since trolling has continued even after the protective shade of secrecy has been removed, impunity cannot be the sole cause of this malicious behavior.

Political enemies and pundits used to insult each other all the time through published pamphlets and treatises, usually written under pseudonyms. Sound familiar? At least back then it took a few weeks for the papers to go to press and then get distributed. Online, it takes but an instant click.

So has the Web made us, as a people, worse off? I beg to differ; all it has done is give our worst aspects a quicker venue with an even bigger audience. It’s like adding fuel to the flames. But inside they were always there, that fire was always burning inside.

Social networking, like all technology from cars to guns to hammers, is inherently neutral. It is a tool. What determines the “ethics” of the tool are the ethics, or lack thereof, in the wielder.

What’s your opinion? Do you think social networks, or even the Web itself, have fanned our flames for the worst?

Article by Vince Ginsburg. What are your thoughts on the matter? Comment on my blog and add your voice to the discussion: