And the trolls shall inherit the Web

The Web encourages all sorts of nasty debate, but should instead be a conduit to transparent, open discussion.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Thomas Hobbes once described pre-social life as "nasty, brutish, and short." He couldn't have described Web commentary more aptly.

Hence, while Nick Carr has pondered whether Google is making us stupid, I wonder instead if the question should be, "Is the Web making us rude?"

I took a position on Twitter's policy change related to @Replies on Wednesday (briefly summarized, "People seem far more interested in complaining about the changes than in paying for the service"), and have been roundly excoriated since. Some have questioned my IQ, while others were content to lob ad hominem attacks, and one summed up the ire of many others by calling my argument "pretty damn silly."

My own experience is mild in comparison to those of others like Kathy Sierra which gave rise to calls for a blogging code of conduct.

What is it about the Web that allows, or perhaps encourages, such strong reactions to such relatively unimportant issues? In the U.S. we have freedom of speech, but should we use this freedom so irresponsibly?

Part of the problem is anonymity. I've written before that "On the Internet, no one knows that you're a dog...Or that you're a jerk." People say things under the guise of the Web's immediacy and anonymity that I'm convinced they'd think better of saying in person. I know I have.

But part of the problem is that the Web lowers the barrier to "fame," and apparently it's OK to abuse the famous. This past season in the English Premiership a debate has waxed and waned as to whether fans have the right to mercilessly boo the players well beyond the pale of good taste. "I pay for a ticket, therefore I have a right to be brutal to the players" goes the thinking.

I find this logic flawed, but I can at least understand it. It's a case of populism wanting to register its displeasure with overpaid and underperforming football (soccer) stars.

On the Web, however, what passes for "fame" usually isn't. Would you consider me famous? I certainly wouldn't. My kids still get excited when they see my picture on my own computer...in my iPhoto application...displaying pictures I took with my own camera. Me, famous? Not even close. Not even close to close.

Never has the bar to fame been so low.

Nor have the stakes been so paltry. Henry Kissinger is often credited with the statement: "Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small." The same is true of much of the debate that swirls around technology.

Let's be clear: no one's salvation is at stake in Twitter's business model, nor its @Replies policy. Open source offers a highly efficient way to produce and distribute software, but the world would hardly end if all software were proprietary. And while Google and Microsoft both seek to dominate the Web, our lives won't change dramatically if one of them succeeds for a few years, and a few years of dominance is about all the leeway a free market and disruptive technology allows. (Did Microsoft's monopoly on the desktop really affect your quality of life that much?)

It's technology, and a few of us like to write about it. But let's not become trolls over the relatively small stakes involved.

Yes, I know that technology does matter. My thesis adviser at Stanford Law School was Larry Lessig, after all, so I'm familiar with the importance of "West Coast Code."

But let's engage in the debate in polite fashion. This isn't a call for a group hug and subdued, milquetoast debate. It's instead a request for civil discourse. The Web should augment our ability to talk openly about a wide array of issues, but instead it too often encourages negative behavior that stifles quality discussion. We can do better.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.