Downside of the Internet?

19 11 2008

Life has been a bit busy and nothing really came to mind to warrant putting fingers to keyboard to add to this blog, but during the past two weeks two things happened to provoke me to write again. Forgive me if this is slightly negative but honesty is sometimes negative. After all, we wouldn’t want the doctor to hide a diagnosis because it indicated we were ill! And what I’ve observed is a sort of malaise which the Internet seems to bring out in people.

Now I need to say from the outset that I am not put off by negative or hostile responses. As a Christian I am very aware that not everyone shares my beliefs and sometimes those who comment about those beliefs, do so in a less than gracious manner! My various other blog sites quite occasionally provoke a comment and they are often questioning comments and, again, often not in a very gracious manner.

Why is it that we can’t ask questions without appearing hostile? Why is it that when we hold a specific viewpoint we so often have to see opposing views in a hostile manner? Is it that we feel sufficiently insecure about our own standpoint that we have to be hostile about those that others hold? Or, I wonder sometimes when receiving such volatile responses, is it that those who so write from an anti-God perspective have such seriously unhappy lives that create the tirades that sometimes come.

But this isn’t the concern that I have. I welcome questions and am always happy when people comment asking questions, hostile or not. No, the concern that has arisen within me in this year, is the concern about the shallowness of thinking that is revealed in so many comments that appear on the Internet.

I first observed this when, back in August, I was involved with publicising a protest in Beijing during the Olympic Games. We used the Press, TV and the Internet and of course it was the Internet that provoked the reaction – because you can do that here! The point we were making through the protest, which had extremely good worldwide media coverage, was that the atheistic communist government of China was still persecuting some 70 million Chinese Christian believers, for no other reasons than they are believers in Jesus Christ. It was the responses to our activities that appeared on a number of chat rooms that almost led me to despair over what can only be described as blatant ignorance mixed with a careless ability to make comments out of that ignorance, which only made the writers appear silly.

It is perhaps one of the good things about the Internet, that it allows any one with Internet access to comment and add their voices to the debate, but it is here that it then gets very sad. Having watched this phenomenon for some while now, I am put in mind of the hostile crowds who mindlessly screamed and shouted in the French Revolution, voicing their anger at being the underprivileged, when the privileged were being carted to the guillotine.

I recently observed this same phenomenon on the Times Online website when a large number of people were responding to an article (I can’t even remember what it was). As I scanned down the comments I couldn’t help but think how shallow they were and very few added anything constructive to the discussion. Most were knee-jerk responses coming out of prejudice and, of course, prejudice rarely helps the truth.

But my spirits were stirred when on the WordPress front page, I found myself being pointed to an article about Gay Marriage and the American Constitution. The original writer wrote a reasonable and fairly balanced article which produced over 150 comments at the time of my reading it. Now the nature of the article looked for response in that it was postulating a particular approach which might possibly be described as controversial. Now what was sad about the responses, and so strongly did I feel this that it eventually produced this article, was the virtual absence of any basic discussion about principles which were behind that being proposed.

Now despite my comments earlier on about the hostility I occasionally find, the responses to this article didn’t produce hostility. In fact, the first seven comments were mostly one or two liners of agreement. Come on, I thought, this article warrants more than nice agreement. Number eight gave more thought. Time and space forbids individual responses to the comments that followed. A number fell into the partisan trap and commented about those who wouldn’t like the article but still hardly anyone bothered to go deeper and consider the implications of what was being suggested.

Now I didn’t mean to be derogatory using the phrase ‘hardly anyone bothered’. I simply meant that thought and in-depth comment were not priorities of the readers; their lives were too busy with other things, I concluded. It does take time and effort to write a reasoned response, and it seems that most of us don’t have that (though I don’t actually believe that!).

But am I ignoring the desire to feel ‘part of something’ for why else do people spend a minute or two adding a couple of lines comment? I would have thought (on my own experience) that the primary reasons for adding comment are either to put in an alternate viewpoint, or to reinforce the original article as something that the world really needs to hear. But perhaps such rationality is not the primary motivating force for so many; perhaps it is just the desire to join in. Is it what psychologists and sociologists say about the day in which we live, that many of us are so isolated in our real lives that we have to resort to the Internet to feel a part of a group?

If that reasoning is so, then my rumblings about shallow or thoughtless comments may be valid at an intellectual level, but not an emotional one. I think from an intellectual standpoint my plea, as it was many times back in August, is for some reasonable and rational discussion at more than the partisan or prejudicial level, but if you are just getting pleasure from joining in being part of the emotional groupiness, then ignore me – but there may just be more satisfaction from thinking through more fully some of these things that appear in the media, including the Internet. It seems we are wasting a great opportunity.

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