Saturday, 31 July 2010

Talking is cheap, but comment is free

The publication of however many bejillion Facebook users' data recently has prompted the usual panic about online security, with people in the know tutting and shouting "I told you so" at anyone who happens to walk past, and people not in the know desparately trying to figure out how any of this could have happened. I get the impression though that we tend to assume that things on the internet are more private than they actually are. The internet is brilliant for bringing us into contact with people who think like we do, dress like we do, enjoy the same films and music and books that we do, but who may well live in completely different parts of the world. Why then is it so surprising when we also encounter people from closer to home who may well completely disagree with us? And do we have the right to mind?

A Friend of mine (who reads this blog, hello) recently had a problem on Facebook, when one of their friends started trolling on my Friend's status. Friend is a committed feminist, who got angry at Troll making jokes about Doctor Who spanking his assistant. Troll either didn't realise they were being offensive, or were enjoying causing the upset. Friend made an excellent stab at teaching Troll manners, but among other things said, "This is *my* facebook status, not a public domain" [emphasis theirs]. How true is that though? Troll has at some point been accepted as a friend by Friend, giving them the capacity to comment on anything Friend posts in their status. Doesn't the expressing of an opinion by Friend in that way therefore provide an opportunity for, if not prompt or even invite Troll to pass judgement on it by commenting? Should Troll have refrained from doing so knowing it would upset Friend, or should we be talking about Troll's right to free speech? Should Facebook's settings be flexible enough that it controls who is able to comment on things, as well as whether or not they can see them?

A similar thing happened to a LiveJournal post about comedy. Poster marked the post as both triggering on a range of issues and suitable for 18s and over only, and went on to use examples to illustrate what they considered to be appropriate and inappropriate humour. Someone commented on the post that they enjoyed Roy "Chubby" Brown's humour (who Poster didn't mention), and Poster's Partner responded by saying that the Commenter was, "not welcome here". Given that the post wasn't made as part of a forum or ongoing discussion it's quite difficult to view the online community which surrounds the post, and although the general mood of the comments would agree with Partner can Commenter really be labelled unwelcome just by virtue of being in disagreement with other members of the community? Does Poster's decision not to moderate this comment not imply that anyone is welcome to throw in their $0.02?

I spotted a third example of this on My Fault, I'm Female, a blog dedicated to publishing examples of sexism in the modern world (and well worth a read in my opinion). Here the community targetted is made explicit by the introductory comments in the side bar on the right, but again there seems to be little moderation of comments. This leads to frequent arguments about whether certain posts actually constitute sexism at all, and much consequent defense of the people who have submitted the stories. One such defense runs as follows;

This is a safe space for women....We’re allowed to own our anger, and this is one site set up to do just that....This is OUR place for discussion, OUR safe space.
But how can it be a safe space for women when anyone is allowed to comment? Indeed, in an online community how could such a safe space be created, without requiring gender checks at the point of entry? Unlike my first example this very definitely is a public domain, though the lack of welcome to certain types of comment is much clearer here than in the second. But since part of the mission of the blog is "to highlight what is still an entrenched problem", wouldn't excluding the very people who are posting these comments restrict the success of what is a key aim of the authors? It is worth pointing out that the introductory text does state that it intends to be non-judgmental, which clearly these comments are not.

So are we back to the issue of causing offence being the deciding feature? Should we be protecting vulnerable people from hearing things which wrongly undermine them? Or should we be welcoming the opportunity to hear views which jar with ours, whether to give us a chance to reassess our own worldview or to set someone else straight about theirs?

It is with some trepidation that I welcome comments....