Quora: What is the single biggest problem on the internet?

It has to be the proliferation of dangerous content. For good or for evil, many social networks and online communities are built around the concept of total anonymity — the separation of our (socially, ethically, and legally) accountable offline identities from our (too often hedonistic, id-driven, and highly manufactured) online identities.

People have always behaved badly. That’s not pessimism or fatalism; it’s just the truth. We are not perfect; often we are good, but just as often we indulge our darkest desires, even if they hurt other people.

And so with the advent of a virtual space where accountability is all too often non-existent, the darkest parts of the real world—harassment, rape threats, child abuse — all moved onto the internet. In the “real world” (an increasingly amorphous concept, but that’s a topic for another day), we are generally held accountable for our behavior, whereas online we are responsible only to ourselves. And sometimes, we cannot be trusted.

Facebook Live is a recent example. When used to share, engage, connect, and tell stories, it’s a beautiful tool. It’s benign online disinhibition at its best. But when it’s used to live stream murder and sexual assault — that’s toxic online disinhibition at its worst. And in the case of that sexual assault, at least 40 people watched it happen in real time, and not one of them reported it.

How did this happen?

It started with cyberbullying. We associate bullying with the playground, and since those of us who make the rules — adults — are far removed from the playground, we forget just how much schoolyard bullying can hurt. So from the beginning social networks have allowed bullying to flourish. Bullying became harassment, which became threats, which became hate speech, and so on, and so forth. We’ve tolerated and normalized bad behavior so long that it’s built into the framework of the internet. It’s no surprise that 40 people watched a live video of a 15-year-old girl being assaulted, and did nothing. It’s not difficult to trace a direct line from consequence-free rape threats to actual, live rape.

When social networks operate without a safety net, everyone gets hurt.

The good thing is, more and more sites are realizing that they have a social, ethical, and (potentially) legal obligation to moderate content. It won’t be easy — as Facebook has discovered, live streaming videos are a huge challenge for moderators — but it’s necessary. There are products out there — like Community Sift — that are designed specifically to detect and remove high-risk content in real-time.

In 2017, we have an opportunity to reshape the internet. The conversation has already begun. Hopefully, we’ll get it right this time.

Originally published on Quora

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Quora: Why do people say things on the internet which they wouldn’t say in the real world?

Way back in 2004 (only 13 years ago but several lifetimes in internet years), a Professor of Psychology at Rider University named John Suler wrote a paper called The Online Disinhibition Effect. In it, he identifies the two kinds of online disinhibition:

Benign disinhibition. We’re more likely to open up, show vulnerability, and share our deepest fears. We help others, and we give willingly to strangers on sites like GoFundMe and Kickstarter.

Toxic disinhibition. We’re more likely to harass, abuse, and threaten others when we can’t see their face. We indulge our darkest desires. We hurt people because it’s easy.

Suler identified eight ways in which the internet facilitates both benign and toxic disinhibition. Let’s look at three of them:

Anonymity. Have you ever visited an unfamiliar city and been intoxicated by the fact that no one knew you? You could become anyone you wanted; you could do anything. That kind of anonymity is rarely available in our real lives. Think about how you’re perceived by your family, friends, and co-workers. How often do you have the opportunity to indulge in unexpected — and potentially unwanted — thoughts, opinions, and activities?

Anonymity is a cloak. It allows us to become someone else (for better or worse), if only for the brief time that we’re online. If we’re unkind in our real lives, sometimes we’ll indulge in a bit of kindness online. And if we typically keep our opinions to ourselves, we often shout them all the louder on the internet.

Invisibility. Anonymity is a cloak that renders us—and the people we interact with—invisible. And when we don’t have to look someone in the eye it’s much, much easier to indulge our worst instincts.

“…the opportunity to be physically invisible amplifies the disinhibition effect… Seeing a frown, a shaking head, a sigh, a bored expression, and many other subtle and not so subtle signs of disapproval or indifference can inhibit what people are willing to express…”

Solipsistic Introjection & Dissociative Imagination. When we’re online, it feels like we exist only in our imagination, and the people we talk to are simply voices in our heads. And where do we feel most comfortable saying the kinds of things that we’re too scared to normally say? That’s right—in our heads, where it’s safe.

Just like retreating into our imagination, visiting the internet can be an escape from the overwhelming responsibilities of the real world. Once we’ve associated the internet with the “non-real” world, it’s much easier to say those things we wouldn’t say in real life.

“Online text communication can evolve into an introjected psychological tapestry in which a person’s mind weaves these fantasy role plays, usually unconsciously and with considerable disinhibition.”

The internet has enriched our lives in so many ways. We’re smarter (every single piece of information ever recorded can be accessed on your phone — think about that) and more connected (how many social networks do you belong to?) than ever.

We’re also dumber (how often do you mindlessly scroll through Facebook without actually reading anything?) and more isolated (we’re connected, but how well do we really know each other?)

Given that dichotomy, it makes sense that the internet brings out both the best and the worst in us. Benign disinhibition brings us together — and toxic disinhibition rips us apart.

Originally published on Quora

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