As an intellectual worker, the citizen of a free republic, and an all-around sentient human who prefers incisive, useful information to vulgar, senseless tripe, I would like to make a modest proposal. After a prolonged assault by the nonsensical, the vicious, and the trivial in my online interactions of late, I long for the construction of a two-tiered Internet ratings system, one which could solve many of the most corrosive online problems as well as enhance the enjoyment and possibilities of a technology that should really feel more miraculous than it currently does. I submit that with light-weight code, a central database, and limited legislation, we might increase the value of the Internet immeasurably by bifurcating the network into two groups: one that agrees to assume responsibility for its content, and another allowed to be as free and feral as it wishes. It could save us from abandoning this whole project in favor of parchment after an overdose of one troll too many.
The ungovernable public space
I’ll make the rant section of this proposal as brief as possible. As a strategic analyst whose clients and colleagues are located all over the world, I depend on the Internet for nearly my entire professional life. The data for my analyses and the connection with prospects, customers, and collaborators come 100% through the Internet. Yet the sources on which I depend appear increasingly polluted as more users join the digital revolution, especially in the age of social media. Where Twitter used to be the telegraph of the modern age, revealing a tight flow of simple comments and links to further insights, now it appears an unstoppable sluice of flame wars, hashtags, video previews, images, sports commentary, plus the occasional breaking news story. As for the stultifying social dynamics of Facebook, from my perspective as an author, it works well as a way to engage readers in dialogue, but is otherwise replete with misbehavior and misinformation. Were I not a ninja at troll management, I could not remain there as a public figure, just as I can barely put up with it as an individual.
As for non-social outlets, indie blogs with any regular output are usually covered in all manner of ads to stay afloat, and even the major news outlets have turned to clickbait to keep up with the loss of traditional revenue. The aesthetics and ergonomics of this environment might be good enough to ward off boredom on a random evening, but it is of decreasing utility if you use your brain for a living.
This search for the insight wheat in the chaff of the modern Web would be daunting enough without the comments and interpersonal dynamics of social media, a phenomenon which sadly and predictably reveals the ugly side of humanity. With our identity-driven, polarized political dynamic, the anonymity of the Internet provides the perfect conduit for unreasonable arguments, personal attacks, and criminal levels of harassment. I have simply had my fill of political temper tantrums, barbaric race trolling, and the general behavior of scoundrels. Add this targeted harassment of individuals to the more widespread problem of garbage information, red herrings, libels, and junk science that pervades the Internet beyond 140 characters. The Web is, in many ways, a failed state where the normal rules of conduct have been suspended, one where behaviors that would be criminal in the real world are allowed to flourish.
There is a major problem: sociologically, the Internet is the real world. Harassment online causes real physiological symptoms of distress and anguish. Our online reputations affect our livelihoods in a monetary sense. Publishing online is real publishing. Yet the jurisprudence around such social interactions is just now developing, as we recently witnessed in the 18-year sentence of that revenge porn magnate who ruined countless real lives with virtual images.
In the real world, actions have consequences, and we have passed laws to safeguard the welfare of all citizens. The government does not force us to engage in any particular behavior, but if we choose to take actions that impact others in a negative way, we can be held accountable, either criminally or civilly, in a court of law. The Internet will be of increased utility if we match its reality as a vector in society with the social and legal accountability we expect in other interactions.
I believe that some simple engineering might make a considerable improvement to the state of affairs.
The Grade A Web: volunteering to behave in a civilized manner
It would indeed be a fool’s errand to suggest that some nanny state stand astride the Internet to parse through content and stamp it with various ratings of quality and safety; the task would be too large and and the social mechanics impossible. However, I believe that a relatively simple, voluntary solution might elegantly lift up superior content to the public’s attention while simultaneously safeguarding free expression.
Picture a switch on every browser and search engine that allows the user to select, similar to the existing SafeSearch feature for adult content, a Grade A Internet display option. Content providers of all stripes could mark their content with metadata that indicates the author’s identity and their profile with the Grade A Internet Registry. It could be as simple as marking content with something like the following:
This code could simply indicate that the author has a verified public profile and that he or she publishes content with the full expectation that they will publicly assume responsibility for its legal ramifications. The code could point to the registered profile, which would include name and legal address, such that if the publisher committed a violation of a law recognized in the non-Internet world – for example, libel or harassment – that this would be the place to direct legal action.
Would this new Internet be better because it would be easier to sue individuals? Not necessarily. It would however provide a voluntary service to users and search engines, to indicate that something was Grade A Content, produced, essentially, by grown adults who mean to engage in a public forum as if it were a real public forum. As it stands, a significant proportion of Internet users have no fear of committing libel and harassment. They have no fear of writing derogatory reviews of physicians on Yelp due to the latter’s refusal to prescribe narcotics for a hangnail. They have no compunction about using Twitter to hurl nauseating insults at women who might, for example, calmly suggest that the depiction of females in video games might bear some sociological analysis. I needn’t go on; you know what’s out there.
In this system, we needn’t demand Bing or Google to hold Nice Internet Court; that’s what the actual court system is for. In fact, media has been held to this standard for years: if they print deliberately malicious, damaging, false information about an individual, they risk being the subject of a lawsuit. You know where to find them and to which address to send the court summons. Are many of those frivolous? Yes – and the attorneys who bring frivolous cases face censure from unamused judges. But some aren’t frivolous and Old Media still retains a significant amount of implicit authority if for no other reason that they are publicly liable if they misbehave. If you don’t believe that, go ask the National Review what happens when you compare a climate scientist to convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky.
This system would be absolutely, 100% voluntary for both users and publishers. Want Grade A Web? Throw the switch to A. Want the Wild Wild Web? Put the switch on W. The same would go for those marking up their content – register your name and address and mark your content, or don’t. It would simply depend on the audience you were trying to reach.
There might be a limited amount of legal and organizational backbone required. Similar to the way secure socket layers make sure we are logging onto “www.google.com” and not some private server of the Uzbek mafia, a non-profit organization would need to be created to maintain the database of Grade A volunteer publishers. Speaking as a publisher myself, I would have no fear about such an institution maintaining my current address; my bank, hospital, and electrical utility all have this information, and there is little risk from it. And moreover, my work on the Internet is just as important to my life, in all ways, as those utilities.
There might be difficulties, but ah! – the rewards we might reap. I’m dreaming of two Internets, one where civility is at the very least improved by an explicit promise from publishers, and another where, heck, if you feel like duking it out with some trolls, have a ball. I’m imagining streams of information where the juveniles and scoundrels are excluded, having been unwilling to own up to their rotten behavior like a free citizen, and where the signal-to-noise ratio of more sober voices is, by design, improved. Then at night, if you want to hang out with the people and get decadent, you throw the W switch, have a couple of beers, and see what happens. But overall, there could be a simple, elegant way to reduce some of the more toxic behaviors showing up online.
A boy can dream can’t he? I had a college roommate who loved the 18th century and wrote in quill, parchment, and wax seal. While romantic, it seemed impractical. Alas, I am quite attached to the Internet, which is as much a part of real life as the newspaper or TV. There should be some adult standards, and upholding them might take an infinitesimal amount of code and a database.
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