It has long been a concern of mine the amount of anger on the internet and the corrosive effect of trolling. I am particularly concerned with the effect of trolling on the young people I work with. A major concern for young people is to create an online identity, which makes them particularly vulnerable to trolling – as ridicule, jealousy and betrayal create wounds that are not easy to heal. The unique environment of the internet creates ‘collapsed contexts’ i.e. the audience is unlimited, and potentially world wide, unlike the normal fixed context of a face to face conversation with a friend or a group of friends. One aspect of the unlimited context is that when someone is bullied on line or humiliated they start imagining that all of their friends and family have witnessed this (whereas usually a handful of people might have read the comments) . This then leads to a toxic spiral downwards and self harming or the occasional tragic suicides, that seem to be linked to sites such as ask.fm.
We are building a community on-line and it us up to us what type of community we are building. Certain people have a lot more power and influence than others – Zuckerberg (Facebook), Schmidt (Google) etc. With that power comes responsibility and their is little evidence of them taking this seriously. Have you noticed how on certain sites, You Tube, Facebook you just expect to see angry and nasty comments whereas on other sites e.g, Flickr – the tone of the comments is much more positive? I think a link can be made here to the famous ‘broken window’ theory in criminology. This explanation comes from the original 1982 article in Atlantic Monthly – Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.
The point is that further petty crime and low-level anti-social behaviour will be deterred if you fix the windows and clean the litter, and that major crime will be prevented as a result. On Facebook and You Tube therefore there are many broken windows, which means that trolls feel very happy to go in and send offensive messages. However on Flickr and other places informal social controls can be an effective strategy to reduce unruly behaviour. Effective moderating and community watchmen can change the feel of a website and its comment threads. Perhaps more political pressure needs to be put on Google (who own YouTube) and Facebook to start taking responsibility.