Perhaps the most existential question regarding the Web’s future is what could turn the tide against online toxicity? The rise of horrific speech, terrorism recruitment, cyberbullying and all other manner of toxicity has undermined the initial advances the Web made in granting a voice to the formerly voiceless. Much has been made of the Web’s ability to transform Dr. Jekylls into Mr. Hydes, bringing out the worst in ordinarily level-headed individuals and turning even teachers and professors into raving founts of hate. The Web’s anonymity has frequently been cited as a root cause of this transformation from in-person congeniality to online hate monger, raising the question of whether replacing the digital world’s anonymity with real-world personas would restore digital civility or make things worse?
Twitter has in many ways become the public face of online toxicity. While there are many reasons for this such as its broadcast nature, one driving factor is its reliance on anonymous user accounts in which hateful individuals can hide behind the protective cloak of an anonymous username.
In contrast, LinkedIn, with its focus on accounts that directly tie users back to their real-world identities, including schools, employers and professional connections, is far less associated with toxic discourse.
Twitter’s anonymity is equivalent to a protest march in which participants are wearing masks to shield their identities. LinkedIn is the equivalent of everyone wearing name badges and the logos of their employers and schools on an identifying vest.
This connection between online persona and real-life identity mirrors the mediating influence connectedness once had through the geographic ties of community. In the physical world that predated the Web, community reigned supreme, whether on the scale of a small town, an urban neighborhood or a professional society. Members knew each other and had deep ties established through friendship, family, schools, workplaces, social organizations and other connections. This meant that even when community members disagreed, there were costs to deviating from civil discourse. Two neighbors might vehemently disagree about politics, but their physical proximity and need for mutual cooperation typically overruled emotional irrational impulses.
“Race,” his great-grandmother had taught him, “is something you run — and win.”
The man and his great-grandmother were brilliant.
But is the era of free speech ending? Everywhere we look, it seems, there are more and more attempts to shut down offensive and provocative speech. Sometimes, this is done in the name of protecting kids or the sensibilities of marginalized ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. Other times, calls for censorship are made in the name of protecting the political process from “dark money” or foreign influence, or in the name of national security.