Love and Witch Hunts

The stories in ‘love online’, an online article, and ‘village phone’, a chapter in the book “Here Comes Everybody”, both deal with the consequences of new social dynamics created by the internet. They do not fall into the dystopian or utopian genres a lot of writing about technology use, but try to raise questions about how we should deal with new problems and opportunities created by electronic media.


In “Village Phone” a woman loses her phone in a cab and asks her friend Evan to see if he can find it using the internet. He finds out it ended up with a girl named Sasha who won’t give it back and when that becomes a story online it turns viral and people try to crowdsource their own justice. Sasha tells them to stay away, but people used her online profiles to track her down and she is eventually arrested and the phone returned.


“Love Online” is a story told by Henry Jenkins, an american media scholar, about his son who started dating a girl he met online. Her father does not approve of it, at least at first, because he is old fashioned and thinks relationships online aren’t real. Their relationship lasts a while, and they meet in person, but they end up breaking things off. Part of the issue is that they live far away from each other, and even if talking on the internet is real in a way, it is not a substitute for actually being with someone.


The most interesting thing to me about these articles is how old they are. “Love Online”, was written 17 years ago, which means it is older than the internet was at the time. The other reading is from a book published in 2008, and the story happened in 2006, more than a decade ago.


Reading these articles it is interesting to see things that are now common talked about as revolutionary. The idea of two people meeting online is barely even interesting anymore. There used to be a stigma around meeting someone romantically online, but the ubiquity of social media and apps like Tinder have pretty much destroyed those cultural norms. That doesn’t say much about how those relationships work, but it shows that they are ‘real’ enough to become normal.


Similarly, online shaming and witch hunts are now reliable events. I actually think this is mostly good, if still too unforgiving at times. Addressing some points, what these articles show in terms of enabling group formation is that it is easier to make connections than ever, but there are caveats. It is easier than ever to connect with a large group of people at once, or with an individual person. However, those connections are not necessarily strong, so groups formed online often shrink dramatically when they try to materialize in real life.


As for the ways in which the internet creates an “architecture of participation” I think this is essentially true, because in a broad sense the internet allows people to join or create subcultures.  However, the instance with the phone deals with a more specific type of participation that involves social institutions like law enforcement, which now have to navigate the online realm. The story of the phone crossed a line where the ‘activists’ online were basically stalking a teenage girl to try and find out where she lived, which could easily have put her in danger, which shows how easily well intentioned actions can spiral out of control online.


The phrase “witch hunt” can become a kind of moral panic when it is used as a way to condemn some new online social movement (such as #metoo) as reckless, but the fact is that any social movement will involve a lot of uncertainty. Some of the most infamous moments in online history happened when people tried to play detective after some event, but that kind of instantaneous mob hunt has to be seperate from online movement. In some cases there is mob justice and vigilantism online that is not related to any larger cause. The case of the phone is really just an example of a gossip story that goes viral and can create a temporary response.


I think we can see from a lot of examples that people can organize on the internet to effect social change, but we tend to drastically overestimate the power that can be harnessed online because we forget how detached it is from the real world. Ultimately the potential social power of the internet cannot be judged on the ability to create scandals, but on the ability to build lasting changes in our social order.


As for social connections, Love Online illustrates two important points. The first is that the internet does unquestionably allow people to meet and connect with people they would never meet otherwise, and that people who meet online can become close in real life. However, the second point is that online connections are never a substitute for actually being with someone. That’s not to say they aren’t real, or that you can’t find love online. It’s absolutely possible to start a relationship online that becomes the most important and meaningful relationship in your life. However that online relationship itself is always detached, and the limits of that detachment effect some relationships more than others.  


As the article points out, there are some advantages to that, especially for awkward teenagers. Communicating online lets you shape your personality with more control than anyone has in a regular discussion. Online, when you can read and edit everything you say before hitting send, you can be eloquent, funny, and clever to an artificial extent. In real life when you talk you stumble on words, forget to say things, and generally end up sounding like an idiot a lot because you don’t have time to think ahead.  


The funny thing I’ve found is that the more you talk to someone online, or texting, which is basically the same, the more natural you become, because the conversations start to go faster, and you don’t want to leave the other person waiting.


The articles deal with these changes communication makes to society by looking at new kinds of events that could not have happened without the internet. The story about online dating shows that the internet creates public spaces where people can not only talk to people they know but meet new people, which clearly separates it from other mediums. The collaborative process in village phone shows how those public spaces can be used to organize, while also showing the lack of control any one person has on how a story or movement they start can take on a life of its own.

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