Let’s turn internet anger into good conversation


Sorry, Al Gore. You didn’t invent the internet. That was Tim Berners-Lee.
The London-born computer scientist developed a way to network different computers with different operating systems among scientists working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, and in the process, he created the building blocks that would become the World Wide Web in 1989.
Networking computers wasn’t a new concept. The U.S. Defense Department had established the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network — or ARPANet — which was a data packet-switching system. But in 1989, what would become the internet was commercialized, with a huge boost from Berners-Lee, who created the first web browser in 1990.
Berners-Lee had grand ideas of what instant access to and exchange of information could do for society. Any information would be at any person’s fingertips, no matter where they were. The physical borders and oceans that separated us would be effectively erased, creating a sort of utopia mankind could only dream of before.
But that didn’t happen. Many had the instant access to information — but not always accurate information. And while borders were indeed wiped away — at least virtually — it wasn’t harmony and bliss that resulted.
In fact, on the eve of his creation’s 30th anniversary, Berners-Lee told The Guardian that while he was still an optimist, he was an “optimist standing at the top of the hill with a nasty storm blowing in my face, hanging onto a fence.”
That sentiment has been expressed in a variety of ways in the past few weeks, since Tesla electric car company founder Elon Musk launched what is now looking like a successful hostile takeover of Twitter. There are many who fear that Musk’s past aversion to filtering out content others might deem harmful to society could begin a further slide for social media down the mountain of civility.
The internet — especially social media — has been nothing short of revolutionary, facilitating the sharing of a diversity of ideas. But it has also created polarization we’ve never seen before. And not just with big-ticket issues like Donald Trump or Israel or reproductive rights, but even with the smallest things, like what baseball team you like, or the joke about the former vice president inventing the internet.
Elizabeth Niedbala, a post-doctoral researcher with the U.S. Defense Department, blames the echo chambers created by social media. We can take to Facebook or Twitter and repeat our ideas over and over, creating what Niedbala calls “attitude clarity,” she told the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.
Even more, social media gives us an instant audience of others — many like-minded — who will agree with us, giving us more of a sense that we’re right and creating what Niedbala called “attitude correctness.”
Our opinion could be spot-on, or it could be very wrong. Yet, either way, if someone challenges our position, it’s not just a disagreement. It’s war.
Sadly, that’s what many disagreements have come to. Instead of simply sharing opinions and respecting disagreements, we take offense to anyone disagreeing with us. And we never find common ground.
But we don’t need to be hanging onto a fence in a nasty storm. We can take a step back and just listen. We can even disagree still, and stick to our opinions. We don’t need to hate each other. We just need to remember that, in the end, we’re all in this together. And disagreement is the start of a good conversation — not the end.