Broken Windows and Internet Civility
24 Oct, 2008 - Alissa Wilkinson
Earlier this year, on my way to work, I opened the latest issue of the New Yorker and was drawn into an article entitled “Friend Game”, which covers the MySpace-related suicide of thirteen-year-old Megan Meier. You can read the full article here.
You probably read the story and were as outraged as everyone else; Megan was first wooed, then harassed by a fake sixteen-year-old boy whose MySpace profile was set up and maintained by neighbors, parents of a friend with whom she’d had a quarrel. The situation eventually came to a head, and Megan hung herself from a closet rod with a cloth belt. Months passed before the reprehensible details came out, and the community – and worldwide – reaction has been loud and clear, but the adults responsible for the harassment haven’t legally committed any crime and can’t really be prosecuted.
According to the article, Megan’s parents were very involved in her MySpace world. They approved friend requests and made sure they were in the room when she was on MySpace. The family lives in a “close-knit” neighborhood, but that closeness unfortunately devolved into cattiness. Two good things (parental involvement and community) that couldn’t prevent the sad occurrence.
There were two things brought up in the article, somewhat unrelated, that nevertheless made me think.
Firstly – the article characterizes MySpace in this way:
MySpace, with its cluttered layout, can suggest an online incarnation of the broken-windows theory-surface disorder begetting actual chaos. It works like this: a person signs up (all he needs is an e-mail address) and then constructs a profile by choosing text, songs, graphics, wallpaper, and video clips. Often, when you open a page, the music’s already thumping, as if you’d stumbled into a party in someone’s basement.
When I was reading this article, my husband was reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s book The Tipping Point, which mentions the broken-window theory in reference to the (successful) efforts to clean up New York City in the last couple decades. As I understand it, the broken-window theory posits that if a window is broken in a neighborhood, and it isn’t fixed, it will invite more broken windows. In other words, disorder breeds disorder. (Though the theory has occasionally been attacked by social scientists as incomplete, it holds up as a way to fight entropy, disorder, and chaos.)
One way this manifested in New York City was graffiti in subway cars. As the story goes, subway cars were covered in graffiti, sometimes elaborately drawn murals that would be worked on for days. I’m all for public art in moderation, but someone had a hunch that the graffiti, and the general feeling it engendered that one could do whatever one wanted on the subway, was contributing to subway violence.
So their solution was to paint entire cars every time they reached the end of the line. If the car wasn’t painted in time, it didn’t go back on the track until it was cleaned. Over time, this helped to contribute to the feeling that someone was actually in control in the subway cars; you could spend hours doing your mural, but it would be gone once it went into the last station. Someone was watching, and somebody cared.
Now, obviously, painting over graffiti didn’t solve all the problems in the New York subways. There were other contributing factors. But some old-timers will tell you that this was the first step toward subway safety. And today, when I read stories about subway violence (or see the trailer for that dismal Jodie Foster flick The Brave One), I can hardly believe it. The New York subways aren’t models of cleanliness, but the graffiti has mostly been reduced to scattered “scratchiti” on the windows, and the idea of a shooting or stabbing on the subway is downright shocking. I suspect you’re more likely to be injured or killed driving your car on a suburban highway than in the New York City subways.
This isn’t rocket science, but like many viable ideas, it stemmed from good, common sense. And so I wonder – if MySpace cleaned up its act more (and the New Yorker article goes on to elaborate a bit), would the general feeling around the place improve? Maybe this doesn’t translate to online venues, but consider for a moment the disparity between a standard MySpace layout and a standard Facebook page. Facebook exerts a bit more control over what you see – for instance, you can’t install customized stylesheets, and though individual “applications” may be flashy and ugly, they’re forced onto a profile tab, where a visitor would never have to see them. And as a result, you see more adults on Facebook; in theory, that may contribute to keeping it “safe”. I don’t have facts to back this up, but it seems reasonable to me.
I’m not sure what all to make of these ideas, but I have a hunch that the aesthetics of online space may contribute more to the friendliness and maturity level of a place than we suspect.
The other thing that caught my attention in the article was this statement:
“Pokin’s story threw first Dardenne Prairie and then everyone else-guidance counsellors, techies, First Amendment advocates, parents, bloggers, parenting bloggers-into paroxysms of recrimination. They were all certain that something sick, and distinctly modern, had happened, but no one could agree about whether its source was a culture that encouraged teen-agers to act too grownup or one that permitted grownups to behave like teen-agers.”
The more time I spend online, the more disgusted and/or saddened I am by the way people “act” online. I’m not convinced it’s the anonymity factor – after all, many people are comfortable revealing their name, occupation, educational details, and location, at least to a subset of their friends/readers. I’m fine with you having the information about me that you do.
But sometimes, especially now that political tensions are flying high, I wonder why we’re comfortable being sarcastic, angry, or just plain mean in our online dealings. Has the internet turned us this way (as some have suggested), or have we always been this way, but our sense of shame/propriety/social stigma has kept us from spreading it as far and wide as the Internet?
While we react to this story with a sense of outrage, what can we do to spread compassion, kindness, and just plain good manners around the internet? How might we “rehumanize” the internet by showing love, thoughtfulness, and civility, rather than snarkiness, arrogance, or hatred for those who are different from us?
I don’t know the answer, but I’m thinking about the question.
An earlier version of this article first appeared as a blog entry.