Is there an online duty of responsibility (to act like an adult)?

We tweet. We update our Facebook status. We respond to someone else’s Facebook status. We write a blog post. We respond again. And sometimes, we have an “Exclusive!

But do we think first? Do we ask: should I? Would I want someone to say this about me?

Do we have a code of ethics or requirement of honesty and civility? As I saw person muse today, satirically, if it’s online, how do we know if it is true? Especially if we have no duty to be honest?

Funny, eh? Or maybe not? Sadly, there may be truth to it. Too often, we are all marginally guilty of responding with vitriol and hyperbole, exaggeration and a loose grasp of “the facts.” Opinion is  relative and individual, but civility is not.

Yet, in many ways, it is the nature of the beast, the internet, that is. It’s open, few barriers to entry, and your opponents are faceless (Facebook, not withstanding). There’s no one standing there looking hurt when you call them an idiot, a liar, or a monster. For example, it takes less effort to call the President a socialist and a liar than it does to look at his policy and explain why it’s not a good idea.

Such is the Internet. It is a massive almost unregulated forum where only participants can effectively self-discipline.

The online world is a society without boundaries and I doubt there will ever be a day when it will be something that can easily be controlled by lawyers. One only has to look at what has, so far, been a futile effort to stop the online piracy of music, books and movies. So it is incumbent on us to set the boundaries– the hard part is going to be getting people to agree on where the lines should be.

And just where should those lines be?

What about using the golden rule as a starting point? It has near universal acceptability, found in nearly all cultures in one form or another.

  • Ancient Egypt:  “That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.”
  • Ancient Greece: “”What thou avoidest suffering thyself seek not to impose on others.” – Epictetus
  • Buddhism: “Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.”
  • Confucianism: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” (己所不欲,勿施于人)
  • Islam: “Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you.”
  • And, as is commonly said in Christianity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”

And so on. If you wouldn’t want someone to say it to or about you online, why would you say it yourself?

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t vigorously and honestly discuss, debate, and even disagree. But it does mean we should be more careful about how and what we say online. It is just too easy to degrade our communications and the weaken our social fabric by invective.

One more point, especially for journalists: you do have standards. You should not be publishing or printing without a relevant citation. “Unnamed legislators” are not a story without accompanied “named legislators.” That’s just gossip. And it weakens the public’s ability to trust you.

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One response to “Is there an online duty of responsibility (to act like an adult)?

  1. Pingback: Brandon Beckham: Try a little honey before you resort to vinegar. | After the Bar

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