In the Edmonton Journal Friday there was an article about government agencies, political groups and corporations that have been tampering with information they find objectionable on the Wikipedia site. Apparently Wikipedia has a program created by Virgil Griffiths, an Alabama-born Cal Tech grad student, that allows the site to track those who come there to add or edit the various articles there. Among the addresses associated with tampering with/deleting information Wikipedia discovered isp’s belonging to the CIA, the National Democratic Party, the Church of Scientology, a voting machine supplier named Diebold and the Vatican. Persons using these particular addresses were deleting or changing information that might be seen as unfavorable to their organization, or in the case of the CIA, simply vandalizing entries. I would like to say I am shocked to hear that the Democratic congressional Campaign Committee had added information to the entry on Rush Limbaugh calling him an “idiot”, a “racist” and a “bigot” or that the reference to his listeners as being “legally retarded” was a mistake, but I’m not. Anonymity brings out unacceptable and even herd mentality in the most mature adults when it comes to message boards or any public internet space where people are allowed, encouraged even, to voice their opinions and views. I was recently reading an article on MSNBC about immigration and clicked on the chat option to see what other readers were thinking about what they had read and was again not particularly surprised to learn that most of them were thinking that a previous poster in the conversation was a complete moron or worse.
Back in the day when I was watching soap operas I would frequent the ABC boards in hopes of picking up spoilers on different story-lines or characters but instead often ran across vehement and vicious arguments between regular posters over some of the most banal topics which is quite a feat when the topic to begin with is a soap opera. Name calling and character assassination was the norm and the idea of a civilized debate or even agreeing to disagree was considered foreign if not completely absurd. It’s interesting to me how easily we can dehumanize the being on the other side of the broadband and convince ourselves that they are not entitled to the same type of polite deference that would apply in a room full of people having the exact same conversation. Though I know that there are people whom face to face interaction is no deterrent, and who would think nothing of arguing and belittling those who disagreed with them or questioned their behavior, most people are not of that nature and yet are just as easily sucked in to the most appalling confrontations once they are seated at a keyboard. I guess it is no different than email which, if I am to believe the authors of the new book on email etiquette, is also a means of behaving like high schoolers in a clique war.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone. The internet has made it possible for vast numbers of diverse populations to gather and share information, form relationships and bridge the geographical obstacles that keep us from being the one rather gigantic community that we make up as members of the human race. The tipping point for a manageable community is about 150 people. Past that loyalty limits are exceeded and tension and strife set in. Many internet communities, certainly Wikipedia, exceed that by many times. Perhaps it is truly our nature to be aggressive and adversarial like animals who mark and guard their territories. Or maybe, we are just egocentric beings who only interact peaceably in the face of external pressures that society creates for us and the internet is still the cyber equivalent of the wilds, the last untamed frontier. Ultimately it really doesn’t matter why, but it is certainly disheartening and not in the least surprising which might be the most depressing thing of all.