In days gone by, when neighbours met by the parish pump, by the school gate, in the pub or at the local community centre it was the custom to exchange information on items of common interest. It might be to build grand plans to benefit the whole community, but more typically it would be to gossip and to pass on recommendations and sometimes to air and resolve grievances. When Street Life dropped leaflets through doors in my village, many saw the advantages of a local, user-led example of social media and joined in the fun. At first it was a model of rectitude – warm, sociable and community-spirited people directed others towards the florists, plumbers and hairdressers whom they had found to be most reliable. Lonely or needy people reached out to a network of caring people that previously had been invisible behind closed doors.
Then for a while it became Exchange and Mart – the daily newsfeed was a list of items to sell. In the parish pump model people had a different place, the market square, in which to buy, sell and exchange goods and services. I doubt that schools would tolerate the setting out of market stalls in front of the building and I was reminded of the story of Christ and the merchants in the temple.
But the tipping point for our own village’s flirtation with social media came when a discussion appeared to comment upon the fitness of the local Health Centre and the GPs who operate it. Take care, I thought, because once you begin to comment on the performance of professionals in an unmoderated, public space, there are implications for all concerned. Happily everyone seemed to have nothing but praise for their doctors and so nothing controversial emerged.
Even so, a change had taken place – people were being named and their competence and character were being evaluated without their consent and probably without their knowledge. The lid had come off Pandora’s Box, and that left space for the Furies to fly out. And fly out, they did when along came “Dustbingate”. It was a very windy Monday. Some neighbours had left their wheelie bins for collection the night before as usual, and then had departed for work. The end result was that the bins were blown over and the neighbours who were still at home had virtuously taken it upon themselves to clear up the litter. Later they put finger to keyboard and blogged asking who were the “idiots” who had left their bins out?
I could see how, with a little more attention to the weather forecast, one might have decided not to put out the bin. It had not occurred to me that placing the bin so that its opening faced downwind might reduce the risk of rubbish being blown out. I welcomed the suggestion, although it was no remedy for the bin actually blowing over, as so many had done in very uncommon weather conditions. But I knew who had left out his bin and that meant I had to accept that I was one of the idiots, perhaps I was THE idiot.
You might think it was a fairly trivial matter, and “idiot” is a low-level insult in the general scheme of things, but it is an insult and that meant the rules had changed. It was now acceptable to define a person with a label or a value judgment and not just report on an event associated with that person. It reminded me of a school playground scenario, where someone tells tales – “Billy stamped on my conkers”. If the person reporting the event refers to Billy as a “bully” or a “swine” or an “idiot”, then the matter goes beyond mere reporting of fact. Now it is a personal insult and as sure as eggs are eggs, conflict will ensue.
In our newsgroup, one or two people mildly commented that it was not very nice to make personal insults. Others took an opposing view – “nice” was not nice! To be nice was to invite censorship, to gag free speakers and one should be less sensitive and let people have complete freedom to say what they like. In a moment the community had polarised so that one found oneself in one of two groups – either one of the “idiots” (who don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and would suppress freedom of speech) or one of the virtuous (still very caring people who have the courage to speak their minds). So a wonderful idea has shown the potential to grow into a destructive force, and our village is on the horns of a dilemma in how to shape its future as a community in a digital world. Should we embrace the new media, leave it completely unmoderated and accept the consequences whatever they might be? Should we introduce some form of regulation – a code of conduct, a set of rules? What sanctions should we apply to those who disregard them? A knock on the door? Suspension? Expulsion?
Or should we return to a system of closed doors, take it all offline and return to a scenario in which people for the most part know only the neighbours adjacent and immediately opposite? To quote The Tempest, “This Isle is full of noises.”
I should add as a postscript that Street Life removed the “offending” discussion. I now wait for someone to quote George Orwell.