Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Final Exam submission: Q3

  1. Write a blog post that focuses on separate examples of what you feel to be both the best and the worst aspects of the internet. You are welcome to use sources from the Scoop It channels or any other sources you find to be credible. You will be expected to provide two sources for both your best and worst example. If you use a source that is not available online, you will need to cite it at the bottom of your blog post in MLA format.

O RLY? meme. Original creator unknown.
The Internet. That gigantic digital mass of floating...what?? It's not Flying Spaghetti Monsters (FSM), but even those are par for the course (hence the website link). Evidently the Internet is many things to many people so if you're still wondering about definitions perhaps it's worth noting the diversity of opinions. There's just so much stuff on the Internet, and it leads one to arguably define it as possibly being the collective input of humankind in shiny, digital form (OooOooooooOOoooooo..orly? [Know Your Meme]). Or at least as close as we've ever come to such a lofty goal. Go technology?

Now, bear in mind though that input is input is input, and that it can be of a positive, intellectual, inspirational...or entirely silly nature. It's neutral; it's both. It's a point that may sound contradictory but isn't that precisely what we are? We go to school and the office like responsible human beings doing responsible things, but we're just as likely to blow it all off once in a while and party just a little too much (insert embarrassing Facebook photo here). So no wonder that the Internet, just like any other form of media reflects that duality and may be defined by such.

Are you a wizard meme.
Original creator unknown.
In fact, I would say that this collective input, beyond the topic of definitions may also serve as examples of the best and worst aspects of the Internet because the reasons are one and the same: User-created content and interaction. Big words? Lemme level that down a little for you: You make/say/appropriate something, put it somewhere on the Internet, other people see that and interact right back. Magic.

Or as we civilised folk choose to call it: Facebook. Or YouTube, Wikipedia, any of the dozens of websites and services which facilitate user interaction (i.e. Just about every one?), even if it's just a comment or a Like button you're getting to have your say in some form or another and in most cases you even get to give your own opinion. How's that for freedom of speech?

But let's take the Wikipedia example for a further test-drive shall we? Anyone can basically go in and freely edit any topic, any page, even create something silly (Wikipedia). Oops. The great thing about this is it's basically an online encyclopedia (does anyone really buy the rock-heavy paper kind anymore?), except it's up-to-date on everything from the latest game releases, that upcoming Batman movie and perhaps even a slathering of juicy celebrity gossip. And if it's not? Take charge; get right in there and add that pivotal sliver of information yourself. What's not to like?

Cave Troll
Cave Troll by ElDave via CC Licensing.
Well, quite a lot actually. The thing about the freedom that the Internet provides for user interaction and the creation of content is that it also backfires because not everyone is going to be as upstanding and responsible as you and I (and I know that you know that we can totally be trusted...right??). Some people? Well they're just arses (I love that spelling; also, Blogger spellcheck doesn't), or trolls (Tek-Bull). No one likes trolls.

It's this undermining of credibility and lack of authors' credentials and accountability that has many people, especially academic institutions up in arms about the use of Wikipedia as a source of information and citation. ...but is it really that bad? Authors such as this gentleman here (Burleson Consulting) explain why they think "Accountability would improve Wikipedia", and to be fair he does present sensible arguments and comparisons with search engines, spin-off wikis et cetera. But he's also missing the point.

No one ever said that Wikipedia is a credible source of information, not even Wikipedia themselves. In fact the comparison that the guy from Burleson Consulting makes between Wikipedia and search engines is exactly right: Wikipedia is really a search engine/encyclopedia hybrid and just as you would not trust everything that pops up in your Google searches, so too should you counter-check the credibility and content of a Wikipedia page before taking the information as fact. Actually, you might even want to do that for "traditional" sources of information such as print and TV news stations (Huffington Post). The point is less whether sites which allow user interaction and content are credible or otherwise, and more as to whether Internet users are sensible enough to make informed decisions on the information they are given, in any form, but that's a problem of education and common sense rather than the Internet and Wikipedia. On the other hand what Wikipedia does offer is an initial overview of...well just about anything you would want to search for, just like a search engine except that it also has write-ups and usually other forms of information (pictures, even audio files) on the topic at the same time, on the same page. Now, would you like some fries with that?

The real question is how do you determine which of that information is right and which is not, and the answer is citation. It's true that a lot of information on sites like Wikipedia are never cited, but what is also true is that a lot of them are, and very nicely laid out too. Think a particular statement is in doubt? Head over to the citation link and check it out for yourself, a course of action that this study (Francke, Sundin) also advocates:

Several studies have shown that students often use Wikipedia strategically to get an overview of a topic, but that they are hesitant to use or refer to it in situations where they need to be certain of something, for instance in school assignments, where teachers are often critical of the use of Wikipedia as a source. A bit surprisingly, the study by Luyt et alindicated that the young users mainly used Wikipedia for school purposes rather than for interests concerned with their extracurricular interests. The students were generally aware that Wikipedia could be edited 'by anyone', and so took that into account when they consulted it. The students also compared claims from Wikipedia articles with claims from other sources to determine if the claims were credible.

The same goes for any other site you find on the Internet. Just because someone thinks that a certain piece of information is not up to snuff doesn't mean it's wrong, or that it shouldn't be there (because personally, I don't think spaghetti should be flying at all if it could be in my stomach instead. Just saying). The answer is to double-check the information yourself and come to an informed decision, and while you're off doing that the rest of us who don't need the information for such serious business can sit back and read some wikis, maybe watch a YouTube video or two.

Thing is though, this would be happily ever after if the story ended right here. But it doesn't. Apart from credibility the freedom of the Internet also allows for the question of a lack of responsibility, if not outright anonymity. This is exactly what sites such as 2Channel and its English counterpart 4Chan offer. Let's get to the bad stuff first this time: Libel, slander, defamation and even infringment of privacy, as noted succinctly by this author (Hamazaki). The question is what would you do if you thought you couldn't be tracked for your actions? If your online persona could exist without a face or name, and the answer at least for some is that they would go for any manner of improper behaviour that would certainly not be kosher for any situation that requires any actual face-to-face contact.

...visual anonymity encourages individuals to perceive the self and others less as individuals and more as representatives of a social group. This, in turn, sensitizes interactants to the social norms embodied by the group, and fosters group-normative behaviors that are consistent with these social norms. (Bvee and Cvitkovic, Anonymity in Computer-Mediated Communication in Japanese and Western Contexts - Comparisons and Critiques - 2010), via Hamazaki

The unfortunate thing here is that apart from the most gruesome of cases (Kotaku), there is largely nothing anyone can do about bad behaviour on the Internet except to stay away from known hotbeds of flaming and trolling (Tek-Bull) where possible, and to ignore the rest that one comes across (don't go to 4Chan...as a general rule, don't go there). A level of anonymity will always be part of the experience when you're talking about connecting with people from all over the world (and we are). It's like bad neighbourhoods; stay away from the bad ones and the rest are fine. Just be smart about it.

On the other hand however even such anonymous sites have their good points, and using the example of 2Channel again it is precisely because of anonymity that users are willing to be adventurous and create inspiring content such as Train Man (collection of 2Channel posts). Train Man (or, Densha Otoko) was a series of anonymous posts on 2Channel that told the continuing story of a reclusive "otaku" (nerd), his saving of a woman from harassment while riding a train and the love story that resulted from that chance encounter. What makes Train Man unique is the fact that the story is told entirely through short, informal posts on the 2Channel message board, inclusive of Japanese-style emoticons (kaomoji) and various other inputs from readers who followed the Train Man's journey at the time of its original telling. The story has since been collected, published as a book and even turned into a movie (Flare Gamer), but perhaps what is most remarkable is that given the Japanese reluctance to share personal information, let alone one nerd's harrowing journey to find the girl of his dreams, had 2Channel not been based around the concept of user anonymity that kind of creative input would almost certainly not exist.

So in the end when considering the above points; the pros of collective human knowledge and creative input, and the cons of unreliability and various forms of bad behaviour and infringement of privacy, what can we conclude? The thing is, it's not a be-all-end-all plus or minus, but rather the realisation that the Internet's greatest aspect is also its Achilles' heel. The freedom to interact and have user-generated content, to view this swathe of collective input whenever and wherever is what defines the Internet as something unique and indeed intrinsic in our time, just as the introduction of print revolutionised the potential for communication and indoctrination of certain ideals when it was invented.

In the end, be it print, wireless communication, the Internet or any other form of technology to come what all of it boils down to is that all of these are merely tools for human expression. It is flawed, but it is because of this that the Internet is beautiful in its potential and content, for the reason that it presents us a reflection of ourselves, as people.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your citation from my blog post again. It's interesting to know that you point out "collective human knowledge and creative input" by anonymous users on 2 Channels as a good example of communication on the Internet. Japanese critic Hiroki Azuma also says recently in his latest book that the same thing can be said for a streaming comment system on Nico Nico Douga.(Maybe I should write about it in the future...)

    Anyway, it was fun to read your blog posts in this semester. Thanks.