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Society - Written by on Monday, November 30, 2009 11:44 - 0 Comments

Tim Bevins
Don’t feed the trolls

danah boyd, researcher at Microsoft Research New England, Fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and publisher of the apophenia blog, had plenty to say to the audience at Web 2.0 in New York City on November 17. But some tweeters got in the way.

Conference organizers decided to display real-time tweets from the audience during Boyd’s presentation, which was thoughtful, a bit provocative, and a bit complex. It did require paying attention. Joshua Michéle Ross does a good job describing the situation and drawing some conclusions about what happened, and why and who’s responsible. Here’s how Ross described the situation: “[Boyd] had a rocky start – couldn’t see the audience (lights), couldn’t see the Twitter stream (projected behind her) and the podium made it difficult for her to see her notes. When critical comments began coming through on Twitter it began a downward spiral. The audience laughed at inappropriate moments, throwing danah off her game. The audience then fed on her increasing anxiety and so on.”

boyd, however, does something impressive and even courageous in a blog post about it: She is utterly candid in describing the experience itself, her own trepidation about public speaking, and her feelings about the experience. I strongly recommend reading her blog post, her presentation transcript, and Ross’s piece as well. It is not easy to read boyd’s post, but it is well worth that shivers of empathy you’ll likely experience.

I was not there, so I did not experience this “spectacle,” as boyd calls it, firsthand. But, based on her own and Ross’s descriptions, it’s clear to me that putting up real-time tweets from anonymous audience members during her presentation and in a setup that made it impossible for her to see what was being said (not that knowing might have helped her much) was at best short-sighted and at worst dumb.

I think it’s universally understood that “[t]he anonymity of the Internet leads people to behave differently than they do face-to-face.” eMarketer says that Euro RSCG Worldwide research “shows that nearly 43% of US Internet users feel less inhibited online, with the effect most prominent among females and users ages 25 to 54.” In the case of boyd’s spectacle,” the “anonymity of the Internet” collided with the real world, and people got to see how online catcalls, swipes, crude language, and sexist remarks can be received in person, the effects they can have.

Reading boyd’s blog probably won’t stop many people from tweeting and blogging and commenting however crudely or boldly they want; it should, though, give some people pause. What’s online stays online, perhaps forever, apologies as well of cours. boyd’s blog post has 177 comments, and they are also well worth reading (mine is in there) for the expressions of sympathy, understanding, and support she received. Some may actually be unsympathetic; I have not finished reading them all.

Social media are very cool, afford conversations and information sharing and dissemination unsurpassed perhaps in history. But, like any tool, they do not make us better people just because they exist. We are not better carpenters because we own a hammer; we are not better drivers because we own a car; we are not better thinkers because we blog or tweet or text. During her presentation, perhaps even during one of the moments of inappropriate laughter, Boyd says this: “People consume content that stimulates their mind and senses. That which angers, excites, energizes, entertains, or otherwise creates an emotional response. This is not always the ‘best’ or most informative content, but that which triggers a reaction.” And later, “There are folks who put out highly stimulating content or spread gossip to get attention. And often they succeed, creating a pretty unhealthy cycle. So we have to start asking ourselves what balance looks like and how we can move towards an environment where there are incentives for consuming healthy content that benefit individuals and society as a whole. Or, at the very least, how not to feed the trolls.” If some of the tweeters had been paying attention, they might have recognized she was talking about them.

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