Our honeymoon with the Internet is over. Yes, the Internet had great promise and delivered on much of it, changing society in so many ways just like everyone said it would. But nothing is perfect. Even the tall, dark, handsome and loving groom is inevitably a little less special on the first anniversary than he is on the night before the wedding. So it goes. And so it goes with the Internet and its sidekick, social media, whose reputations have recently taken a beating as we have become more aware of their foibles -- think former Congressman Anthony Weiner and his sexed up tweets, school children bullying each other over Facebook, and YouTube videos of people doing nasty things to food. The downside of the Internet is now more apparent. The Internet's reputation is simply not what it used to be.
Whereas we were once charmed by the Internet's virtues of transparency and easy conversation for companies and individuals alike, its negatives are now up close and personal. There were always those who were wary about the Internet's capacity to disclose secrets and spread rumors but they were in the minority and considered cynics caught in the past. Now, however, more of us are starting to see the fault lines. Maybe this is how all love affairs end. The crush slowly fades into reality.
The decline in the reputation of all things digital has me wondering about the Internet's future. Is the online universe that has in so many ways brought us closer now pushing us further apart due to countless random acts of incivility? Has the full-on-promise of the information superhighway been far too tolerant, allowing itself on far too many occasions to morph into a high-on-hate broadband freeway? Has the bully pulpit available to virtually all of us turned too many into cyber-bullies? Is it time for some restraint on the Internet? Is it time to return to our better digital selves?
Unfortunately, these ruminations are based on facts that should no longer be ignored by those who want the Internet to grow and prosper. At Weber Shandwick, we just released our fourth annual nationwide survey, Civility in America 2013, with Powell Tate and KRC Research. In addition to regularly asking Americans about civility levels for politicians, the media, celebrities, sports figures and others, we've been tracking the civility of the Internet and social media. When we first began the survey in 2010, rude discourse on social media networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn were less of a factor in causing citizens to "tune out" than were the behavior of government officials and the media. Back when the worldwide web began, the Internet was still perceived as a great public experiment, a virtual town hall meeting overflowing with humanity and digital town criers allowing Americans to speak their minds and to hear the truth. I, too, naively believed that such exuberance for transparency and tolerance of unrestrained disclosure necessarily overrode any negativity or reputational hazards that the Internet might have in store for us.
Recent experience has convinced me otherwise. Americans who expect civility to worsen over the next several years cite the Internet/social media as one of the leading causes of incivility, just behind those standard whipping boys: politicians, the younger generation and the media. In fact, 59% of Americans blame the Internet/social media for the rise in incivility in our nation, compared to only 38% last year, a significant increase. Six in ten Americans report that online news articles and comments associated with those articles are a breeding ground for incivility. John Temple, former editor of Peer News, has said that anonymity on the Internet has so reduced personal responsibility that comments sections have been dominated by "racism, hate, ugliness."
Social media takes some of the blame. About one-third of Americans (34%) blame Twitter for the rise in incivility, a statistically higher level than in 2012 (21%). As more people use Twitter or hear about uncivil tweets, more and more people can be expected to blame the micro-blog platform for worsening civility. Congressman Anthony Weiner's sexting was bad enough, but the online comments made about him this past week were often as reprehensible as the behavior that spawned them. Interestingly, Twitter just announced this week that it would be making it easier to report abusive tweets. Nor should Twitter be singled out. Perceived levels of incivility on Facebook, YouTube and blogs outnumber levels of civility by a wide margin. And, not surprisingly, concern over cyber-bullying reached its highest level since our study began.
Innovation always causes disruption as society adapts to the changes it brings. The Internet and social media are no different. Chris Perry, global president of digital communications at Weber Shandwick, says that their co-mingled reputations can be expected to improve as enterprising new businesses figure out how to filter out uncivil from civil commentary and deliver news, information and opinion that citizens want and how they want it. I hope his optimism proves correct.
The generally positive reputation of the Internet and social media over the last few years has been fueled by their magical end benefits - letting us buy online, search online, work from anywhere, engage friends and family, meet up with people around the globe, and access information that used to be impossible to find. They have allowed us to better attend to some of the world's most intractable problems, delivered education to deserving children around the globe and created jobs where none existed just a few years ago.
A free and open society built on reverence for freedom of speech has to accept some of the bad for all the good that has occurred. But we shouldn't ignore it. It is time to consider the darker side of the Internet's reputation and character. Are random acts of incivility online (nearly nine times per week for the typical user according to our research) becoming acceptable? Should we no longer tolerate behavior that causes us to defriend or block uncivil people and that steers us away from certain sites or discussion groups? Such incivility debases the Internet's reputation and harms us all.
The honeymoon with the Internet may now be over, but the marriage is not. We have no choice but to now take on the hard work of making our relationship work, really work. Divorce is totally impractical.
Follow Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@reputationRx