The recent, latest online activism against an online idiot encouraged me to write something which I had been thinking about for awhile.
The philosophical musing began when I discovered the following on Wikipedia:
Eternal SeptemberFrom Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia(Redirected from Long September)
Eternal September (also September that never ended) is the period beginning September 1993, a date from which it is believed by some that an endless influx of new users (newbies) has degraded standards of discourse and behavior on Usenet and the wider Internet.
The term eternal September is a Usenet slang expression, and was coined by Dave Fischer. The term is so well entrenched that one news server calls itself Eternal September, and gives the date as a running tally of days since September of 1993 (e.g., Sep. 03, 2012 is “September 6943, 1993, the September that never ends.”). This server was formerly named Motzarella.org.
Usenet originated among American universities, where every year in September, a large number of new university freshmen acquired access to Usenet for the first time, and took some time to acclimate to the network’s standards of conduct and “netiquette“. After a month or so, these new users would theoretically learn to comport themselves according to its conventions, or simply tire of using the service. September thus heralded the peak influx of disruptive newcomers to the network.
Around 1993, the online services such as America Online, CompuServe and Demon Internet began offering Usenet access to its tens of thousands, and later millions, of users. To many “old-timers”, these newcomers were far less prepared to learn netiquette than university students. This was in part because the new services made little effort to educate their users about Usenet customs, or to explain to them that these new-found forums were outside their service provider’s walled garden, but it was also a result of the much larger scale of growth. Whereas the regular September freshman influx would quickly settle down, the sheer number of new users now threatened to overwhelm the existing Usenet culture’s capacity to inculcate its social norms.
Since that time, the dramatic rise in the popularity of the Internet has brought a constant stream of new users. Thus, from the point of view of the pre-1993 Usenet user, the regular “September” influx of new users never ended. The term was used by Dave Fischer in a January 26, 1994, post to alt.folklore.computers, “It’s moot now. September 1993 will go down in net.history as the September that never ended.”
Some ISPs have eliminated binary groups (Telus in Canada) and others have dropped Usenet altogether (Comcast, AT&T, AOL). This led some commentators to claim that perhaps September is finally over.
I was a university student who used the Internet before AOL, Compuserve, and the World Wide Web caused the beginning of the “Eternal September”. I had to learn netiquette. Even when AOL and other online services began to link to the Internet, the users were still paying to use those services, and could be identified, even if they used a screenname (usually required, because of a limit on length) or an account number (CompuServe).
Now? Anyone can go online, create an pseudonymous email account, and post away. If one account is blocked, another can be created.
So, how do you make the Internet a better place for polite discourse? You probably can’t. But here are some possibilities:
1. Hardwire metadata into each online transaction. A person’s location, the connections used, the computer’s identification number… Sure, these can be spoofed via proxies and offshore servers, but you make that a legal requirement, and thus give authorities another tool for prosecution. System administrators can block problem users, and report them to a central agency, in much the same way banks report individuals to credit bureaus. The user would be notified, and an appeal process would be available. Of course, the electronic evidence trail would be quite specific and damning. If a computer is blocked but used by various people, (such at a university or family) then the owner would be required to discipline the user.
1.5 Allow internet users, via various Internet services, to automatically block anyone with a suspect reputation. An individual could even filter by various criteria. Just as Google Chrome warns of suspicious sites, so could social media sites issue a warning when receiving email, instant messages, or other communications from irreputable individuals or computers (such as boiler room scams).
2. Pseudonyms are sometimes required. An individual might be at danger for posting information to the Internet which a government might consider seditious. A person might have created a following on another website and become known by that screen name, just like a writer is known by a pen name.
3. The Internet comment system is the electronic equivalent of a newspaper’s “letters to the editor” column. While it is difficult to monitor comments on every article or web page, there can be alternatives. Comment feeds can allow readers to rate other comments, and the comment system can hide or promote accordingly. If the system is widespread, and uses services such as Facebook, Google, Disqus, Twitter or Yahoo for a commenter to login, then those systems can track the reputation of the user. Of course, this can be abused if others bully a specific user, but then those individual can be identified as well. (The system can even be programmed to check for people who stalk or bully an individual repeatedly.)
4. Teach children the importance and responsibility of writing. “Don’t write anything you don’t want being read in public” was a common warning back when that only meant paper and pen. Now with instant caching and searching, it’s an even more critical skill. Teach students how to write clearly, how to argue and debate politely (if deviously), and how to avoid being viewed as a jerk.
I don’t know what the future holds. The Internet makes it so easy to find information, but it also makes it extremely easy to preach to the choir, to avoid anything which might shatter a fantasy or belief. I would hope that extremes would be mitigated, in much the way they were a century ago when local newspapers would promote specific agendas without advocating extremes.
I don’t know if that will change. Some big event, like Oklahoma City, fomented by extremists, won’t make an impact (we didn’t learn the lesson then, and politics has become even more partisan since). Most likely, it will require a lot of different interests working together to make a positive change, but when no one is listening to anyone else, how do get people to work together? Maybe interfaith initiatives can provide some guidance, but the problem with being a peacemaker is that you usually get shot from both sides of the battlefield.
Myself, I’ll continue to (try to) be tolerant and calm when confronted by impassioned commentary. (Most of the time, I just walk away and ignore, refusing to read comments on Yahoo News, for example.) It’s not easy, but life rarely is.
Now, I’m allowing comments, so be polite, intelligent, and understanding. Constructive criticism is welcomed, and I enjoy discourse if it makes me think.