from the we'll-learn-to-behave dept
The alternate world of our social media identities – profiles, handles, accounts, "friends" – has ruined reputations and ended careers, even lives. Adolescents and teenagers see this daily in the form of online bullying. For adults, the harassment usually comes from the anonymous vitriol spewed across the web. The question becomes then: Will it get better? Or is this simply the new normal of our increasingly all-digital world?
The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in the case of a man convicted of threatening on Facebook to kill his wife. The defendant argues that he never meant what he wrote online. The prosecution argues, in effect, that intent is not the issue. Rather, a reasonable person would have felt threatened and that should be standard for a crime committed. What would you – or did you – think if someone dropped a death threat on your profile page?
How the Court decides Elonis v. United States could lead the way toward stemming online abuse. The Justices may uphold the conviction, but as Justice Sonia Sotomayor said during oral arguments, "We've been loathe to create more exceptions to the First Amendment." It's a comment that might leave the floodgates wide open for online abuse, granting online bullies and trolls even greater latitude under the cover of the First Amendment.
No matter what the Court decides, it still would be exceedingly hard to prosecute online offenders whose abuse doesn't include physical threats. Ask any teenager or adolescent if online attacks like, "You're so ugly; you should kill yourself," hurt any less than verbal assaults. The Court's decision won't stem the online harassment of adult victims either, whose tweets, posts or pictures done in poor taste can cause serious digital backlash.
The fact is social networks have changed the way we see ourselves, just as email once changed the way we communicated. Whether it's bullying or harassment, there still exists a sense of comfortable anonymity in the digital-social world. We have our "offline" selves, who would never say such things to someone's face, and our "online" selves, who can't stop from piling on our targets. In many ways, it's no different than the violent mobs of yesteryear – people in a mob find themselves doing things they would never contemplate on their own.
But Court cases like Elonis are helping to erode this digital wall between our online and offline identities. Since its foundation, the Internet has revealed its unique place in society – a place where people are free to be whoever they want. As the classic New Yorker cartoon featuring two canines puts it, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." This freedom has found its purest expression in social network sites. Yet the nature of the Internet is changing. We hardly even talk about "being online" anymore, because we're always online through our smartphones and mobile devices.
And today, more and more of our cars are online. Our televisions are online. Even our clock radios are online. There will be a time in the not-so-distance future when most of our household appliances will be connected to the web – and not in the way we now know them: using the Internet for one application, such as navigation for cars. They will be "communicating" with other connected devices, constantly gathering data through sensors on us, the users, and on our surroundings.
As the Internet evolves, so too will the way in which we see ourselves. Social networks will no longer be confined to our screens – laptops, tablets or smartphones. They will be as seamlessly integrated into our daily lives as the Internet itself. In this digital future, it will be much harder to cyberbully and torment people online, because the anonymity of the Internet will give way as we circle back to a world of singular identity – online and off.
The chasm that once existed between our online selves and our offline selves is shrinking. Given the trends of digital devices and the ubiquity of the Internet we see today, Facebook, Twitter and other social networks will no longer be separate places where our actions live without consequence. They will be as real as our brick-and-mortar reality, where civility and restraint still govern. "Welcome to the jungle" will no longer be a dire warning, but a digital whisper.
Shawn DuBravac, Ph.D., is the chief economist at the Consumer Electronics Association and the author of the forthcoming book, "Digital Destiny: How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Work, Live, and Communicate" (Regnery, 2015). Follow Shawn on Twitter @ShawnDuBravac