Anonymity is turning online identity into a hub of low culture

Internet has allowed us great freedom but has it given us a sense of responsibility, decorum and decency?

Akshaya Mishra December 06, 2011 18:31:49 IST
Anonymity is turning online identity into a hub of low culture

With great power must come great responsibility.

Internet has allowed unfettered freedom to the netizen to let go —  vent his anger, pour out his frustration and air his opinion. Operating in the boundaryless cyberspace he is not constrained by the limitations on free speech set for him in the actual world. It’s a liberating experience, and an empowering one — anonymity certainly has its advantages. But does it come accompanied by a sense of responsibility, decorum and decency?

The answer, unfortunately, is not an unqualified yes. Over the last few years, a form of low culture has been creeping into cyberspace identity, threatening to turn the Internet, a revolutionary innovation in human history, into a platform for uncivil, no-holds-barred, and sometimes downright vulgar, expressions and exchanges. By even the permissive standards of cyberspace, the trend is a bit disconcerting. Reputations are tarnished, religious symbols are mocked at and historical personalities are denigrated with impunity. It does not matter whether sentiments are hurt.

Anonymity is turning online identity into a hub of low culture

What is worrisome here is not the culture of freedom but the freedom to intrude into private spaces. AFP

That brings us to the curious question of freedom. Mankind has been fighting for it for ages, striving hard to break free of the controls put on him by several forces — social, political, religious and otherwise — seeking of him to abide by rules and norms, and basically conform to the greater community will. Freedom is an individualistic trait which seeks release from such systems of control. All great independence movements — the French Revolution, the American War of Independence and the Indian struggle for freedom, too — have been about this. In the flat world we live in today, the Internet revolution is the greatest of them all from the individual’s perspective.

But how much freedom is enough? It’s a property which is not quantifiable. But as the recent trend proves, the expansion of one’s freedom happens at the cost of someone else’s. So some Danish cartoonist can hurt the Muslim sentiments by drawing disparaging cartoons of Prophet Mohammad, some loony in US can make sandals with picture of Hindu deities on them, a jilted lover can place offending pictures of a former girlfriend on the Internet and someone can call Chhatrapati Shivaji names.

What is worrisome here is not the culture of freedom but the freedom to intrude into private spaces, injure sentiments and the spurious intent to hurt others. Most operating in the cyberspace are respectful about the private space — we still have a lot of intelligence, knowledge and sensitivity around. Most operators understand the responsibility that comes with the power. But we also have the growing low culture of vulgarity, intolerance and crudeness that anonymity brings.

Left uncontrolled, it would turn the Internet into a battle zone. Imagine a scenario where everybody is attacking everybody, spewing out hate language and turning abusive at the slightest provocation.

And why should the wider society be so tolerant? Freedom is not some kind of a licence to operate unhindered. It is a gift that needs to be valued. If you don’t value that you don’t deserve the freedom. It is important to view Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal’s utterances from this perspective.

If the objectionable picture he was referring to was about Sonia Gandhi the politician and about the public space she operates in, then there should be no objection to it -- there are enough shrill attack coming against her from political rivals and others and a political person she has to take that.The Congress has no business to crib about that.

But if it is about her private space and personal affairs then there’s reason to be worried. If she is the target today, it could be anyone tomorrow, including you.

Let’s put it bluntly: how many people would like their personal lives to be dissected in public? How many would find it acceptable if there was a malicious slander campaign against them and their families? If we don’t make efforts to stop it now, it could go out of control.

Finally, it is about the sense of responsibility.

With great power must come great responsibility.

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