- The Birth of Cyber-Prejudice -
Historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and lots of other "-ologists" spend their lives trying to figure out what society was like when it first began. As a college student in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I was lucky enough to watch a new society be born, so I figure I better write it down now, and save the "-ologists" of the future a great deal of time.
Back in ancient times (pre-1993), the society we now know as the Internet contained mostly college students (cyber-Adams and cyber- Eves, if you will). At that point, all there was to do was send e-mail to our friends, download arcade games through FTP sites, and discuss everything from frat parties to foreign policy on a huge set of bulletin boards known as the USENET. In this newly fertile crescent, social dynamics that we were used to seeing in the real world developed all over again. This time, however, we got to watch it happen.
For instance, online "cliques" began to form. People who shared a common characteristic (same university, same hometown, fans of the same sports team, etc.) began defending each other in public discussion forums, responding to attacks from non-group members, making obscure references to "inside jokes" that only group members would understand, and so on. Non-group members would often post messages suggesting they "take it off-line," meaning the discussion should take place via e-mail, where only those who "belong" would have to read it.
The concept of "celebrity" surfaced as well. Everyone who used the Internet around that time remembers Brad Templeton, the moderator of the popular discussion group, "rec.humor.funny." Equally well known were the guy who tested the copyright laws by attempting to sell T shirts with other people’s art work on them via e-mail (his account was taken away, and then eventually restored), and the Cornell student who wrote a computer virus that brought down university computers around the country (he was arrested). More locally, there were those who contributed very actively to a particular discussion group, and/or had a particularly strong point of view. People around the world who participated in the group would know their names, and would reference them in casual conversation. When a "sighting" occurred (one of these "famous" people posted a message in a discussion group, or sent someone e-mail), word spread through social circles. People would e-mail the posting to their friends, or quote it in other discussion groups to add their own commentary. The behavior became strangely similar to the way people reacted to a celebrity autograph ("Hey, look what I got!"), or a particularly interesting celebrity interview ("did you hear what so-and-so said on TV last night?")
Even a sense of government began to form in this new society. The creation of most new discussion groups required a written proposal, followed by the online equivalent of a signed petition. Others, the "alternative" discussions, could be created on a single person’s whim. Some discussions had moderators - people who would pre-read each posting, and filter out things that he/she felt were inappropriate or irrelevant. Other groups had different methods of self-policing, such as the "flame." If someone posted a message that was generally considered inappropriate, he/she would be publicly ostracized through a series of (often fairly cruel) postings by dozens of people. As a participant in the group, the treatment received by the offending contributor made you think twice about what you said in this very public forum. Without a single written law or organized governing body, the very basics of democracy had spontaneously appeared.
As time passed, the parallels continued. Just as the dinosaurs eventually vanished and man eventually began walking upright, so to did another "era" begin on the Internet. The advent of the World Wide Web, the Internet Service Provider, and the online service added millions of new citizens to this budding society. The evolution reached a new plateau when a now famous cartoon (with a now famous caption) appeared in The New Yorker magazine - "On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog."
The cartoonist was referring to an interesting aspect of this new society. Since everyone in cyberspace maintained virtual anonymity, prejudices like racism and sexism could not take root. An African American, blind, wheelchair bound, science major at a remote community college could hold a lengthy conversation with an Hispanic, overweight, homosexual NASA scientist, all the while maintaining mutual respect. None of their "minority" classifications would keep them from being heard.
I hate to criticize positive PR for the Internet (Lord knows it can use it), but the implication here that the Internet is free from all prejudice is a bit overstated. The fact is, prejudice does exist in cyberspace, it has merely taken on other forms.
When I say "prejudice," I refer to the act of attributing characteristics to an individual solely because of his/her membership in a particular group (i.e., men are pigs - he’s a man - therefore, he’s a pig). On the Internet, groups such as "men," "women," "white," and "black" are generally not available and so, as the New Yorker so eloquently points out, you see very little sexism or racism on the Internet (by this, of course, I refer to sexism/racism directed at an individual. As with any large society, you can surely find sexist/racist statements made by individuals for public consumption).
The Internet does, however, provide us with groups such as ".edu," ".com," and ".gov." Browse through a few USENET discussion groups and you’ll see the occasional "What do you know - you’re still in college" statement directed towards firstname.lastname@example.org. Of course, we have no way of knowing whether "someone" is a world-class professor, an expert in his/her field and one week away from a Ph.D., or a college freshman who just found the computer lab. Regardless, the ".edu" domain on his/her e-mail address categorizes him/her in a certain group, one which will occasionally elicit a prejudicial remark.
Commercial domains are not impervious to this phenomenon either. For instance, when America Online began providing direct Internet access in the mid-90’s, there were some features missing in the software. For example, AOL users who posted messages to discussion groups did not have the ability to edit the list of groups the post went to. This resulted in a proliferation of messages from email@example.com in discussion groups that had nothing to do with the subject of the message. This, along with America Online positioning itself as the online service for non-technical folks, led many to assume that all AOL users were all a bunch of computer illiterate kids who were simply clogging up the discussions with useless drivel. Alternative discussion groups (the kind that don’t require a petition) were set up with names like "alt.aol-sucks." People posted messages accusing the company of everything from overcharging their users to secretly reading everyone’s private e-mail (with varying levels of accuracy, by the way). Someone even wrote a piece of software called "AOHELL," which wreaked havoc with AOL’s back-end systems.
Of course, not all AOL users are computer illiterates. Those who make that assumption are assigning a characteristic to an individual based solely on their membership in a group. Their actions provide us with an interesting lesson about human nature and societal development. If people can be categorized, prejudice will eventually form. When the standard categories (‘men," "women," etc.) are not available, new ways to categorize will evolve.
These categories, and their associated prejudices, provide us with shortcuts in our daily lives. We don’t have time to make unique judgments about each individual, so we make assumptions based on categories. If we’ve categorized well, we’re right most of the time. But, of course, every rule has its exception, and prejudicial judgments will eventually come back to bite us in the end.
So, contrary to what the New Yorker’s cartoon staff would seem to imply, prejudice is alive and well in cyberspace. In fact, as the society continues to grow, and "information overload" becomes more and more of a problem, I wonder if our need for "shortcuts" will increase due to lack of time, or decrease due to increased accessibility to individual information. I guess only time (and eventually, I presume, an archaeologist) will tell.