nasty, brutish, and short

Lately, when I think about the internet, I keep circling around to the idea of the social contract.

I dallied with it in a quick video I made for MOOCMOOC back in August, where I talked about how MOOCS – especially distributed, connectivist-style MOOCS where you participate as you want – are disorienting in part because they challenge the implicit social contract we’re all schooled in. I’ll take that idea further, soon, as part of the thinking aloud process.

But more and more, I’m thinking the idea of the social contract has value way beyond shedding light on MOOCs and higher ed. I think it’s a framework that may be useful for talking about some of the things we most desperately need to talk about as a culture right now.

The idea of the social contract originates with political philosophy. Philosophy’s finer points aren’t exactly experiencing what you’d call a cultural heyday, at the moment, but suffice to say the idea’s a relic of the Enlightenment, with earlier origins in the Biblical covenant and in Greece and Rome. It connotes the relationship we all have to the structures of power and order in our societies.

The social contract, at its simplest, is about what we expect from others and ourselves: the deal we believe we’re in regarding the give and take of rights, freedoms, and responsibilities. Most forms of the social contract, historically, argue for the giving over of certain freedoms – though what these are and how they are expressed can vary – in exchange for protections of the state or the civilizing influence of society.

We used to, in short, make those deals with some kind of monolithic power – a God or a state or what have you. That was the old school social contract. At some level, most of us are still kind of inclined or trained in this direction, and the divide between God and state – or least interpretations of what ‘state’ means and what rights and freedoms are involved – may serve to explain the increasing partisanship and vitriol in contemporary postmodern politics. Red states and blue states aren’t necessarily in the same social contract.

But it’s even more complex than that. We now live in some crazy kind of incarnation of McLuhan’s global village: the world’s biggest small town. Most of us are wired into some kind of relationship with our capitalist, consumerist, media society, by our bank cards and our status as citizens of postmodern globalized nation states. Our society operates – as do an increasing number of us at the individual level – more on network logic than on the one-to-many logic of hierarchical monoliths like religion and the state.

So we are, in our day to day interactions as humans in the 21st century, constantly trying to establish and operate within the terms of unspoken and often hugely divergent social contracts. We are no longer just entering into an implicit deal with the powers-that-be. We are each others’ powers-that-be.

And we need to learn to navigate those negotiations openly and explicitly; to own the power we have and not wait for the big and mighty to make it all better for us.

Two stories all over the news this week brought that home to me with a couple of unsettling parallels.

One is the story of Amanda Todd, the BC teen who committed suicide. It keeps being tagged as a cyberbullying story, but that seems to have more to do with the fact that she was young and Facebook was an instrument in her torment and we are, culturally, in the habit of making the equation of teen + FB + suicide = cyberbullying!!! than because we’ve actually heard and digested the lessons of her story.

Make no mistake, Amanda Todd was cyber-bullied. Her network of peers appear to have contributed to her shaming via Facebook. But if a kid were stalked by a pimp on a school playground and the pimp then manipulated the playground gang into participating in the abuse, we wouldn’t frame the story as a bullying story, first and foremost.

This is a story about abuse of the power of the internet, first and foremost. It’s about the ways in which anonymity enables people to prey on the vulnerable, and about the ways in which our social contract has not yet worked out the lines between the right to free speech and the ways in which anonymous speech *can* bring out the absolute worst in those who want to exercise more power than their embodied lives necessarily afford them.

Amanda Todd’s stalker took advantage not just of Amanda, and of teens’ willingness to ‘pile on’ to someone singled out for shaming, but also of our culture of spectacle and bystander silence; of our willingness to blame people for stepping outside the boundaries of our social contracts.

We have been told for generations in small-town cultures that people must bear the consequences of stepping outside the approved social contract of behaviour and decorum. This is one of the few places in society where ‘people’ has traditionally mostly meant young women and the marginalized. Exploitation followed by slut-shaming preserves power.

But when you translate this old patriarchal model of the social contract to a network society, it gets really messy.

The second story works the same. It’s the story of ViolentAcrez, the Reddit moderator and notorious troll who was outed by Gawker as a middle-aged white man. Violentacrez spent vast swaths of his life creating and managing subreddits full of upskirt shots of young girls, sexually exploitative stuff about women more generally, and inflammatory and defamatory crap about other marginalized people. That kind of baiting was his brand. He functioned as a bastion of that old-school patriarchal model of power and social contract exposed at its most base by its anonymity in the network: his small-town was the whole world and he didn’t even have to wear the public face of upstanding citizen.

His exploitation and slut-shaming – “you shouldn’t wear a bikini in public if you don’t want your picture taken,” went the logic – went hand in hand with his embedded role in the structure of Reddit: he was acknowledged openly as a troll and a baiter, but also embraced as an insider. He was a keeper of the keys, and his insider status overtly legitimized misogyny and exploitation and general dehumanizing behaviour as a part – not the whole, but a real and accepted part – of the culture of Reddit.

The fallout in the two cases is illustrative. In Amanda Todd’s case, memorial sites to the teen were deluged with nastiness blaming her for the topless pictures she took as a twelve- or thirteen-year-old that enabled her cyber-stalker to continue to blackmail and shame her. In ViolentAcrez’case, Reddit – the self-styled ‘front page of the Internet’ – exploded with outrage about the outing, and (initially) banned all Gawker links from the site in protest.

That’s the old-school social contract in operation.

Then the networks – or the vigilantes, or the community, all depending on how you look at it – got involved. And the effects – which were of course already very real for Amanda Todd and her family – began to filter offline and point out the ways in which both these stories depend on the false idea that somehow the online world is separate from the offline, and governed by a different social contract.

ViolentAcrez lost his real life job, and with it his health insurance. One of the more vicious commenters shaming Amanda Todd after her death was tracked down by a Calgary mom and lost his job after the mom sent his boss an email detailing his commentary. Amanda Todd’s reported cyberstalker was tracked down and outed by Anonymous, and death threats and sites have ensued.

I don’t find any of those people particularly sympathetic, and yet I do wonder about them today…how they feel, suddenly exposed as real and vulnerable themselves.

In truth, we are all bodies somewhere. When we utilize the internet anonymously as if it will never touch our so-called real life, we’re making a terrible mistake. And we’re threatening the social contract of both the old school and our networked society.

Because in a real small town, people don’t get to forget that there are always limits to what they can get away with. Depending on whether they’re powerful or vulnerable, those limits may be very different, but they exist.

They exist online, too. We are traceable, as Anonymous reminds us. But we are also accountable – or we can be, if the majority of us networked into each others’ worlds hold each other to that social contract. In the fifteen or twenty years since we began discovering ways to be together online, we’ve allowed internet anonymity to operate as if it were simply free speech incarnate, beyond the boundaries of any kind of social contract. And in doing so we’ve given power to the worst angels of our natures.

Will this be a tipping point for us as a culture? Will Amanda Todd’s death help us realize that, online, there really are no innocent bystanders when something goes wrong?

Thomas Hobbes said, a long time ago, that without the social contract our lives would be “nasty, brutish, and short.” In a world where our contracts are in part to each other, we need to step up and speak against cruelty and bullying and exploitation where we see it: no deus ex machina is going to step in and stop it for us.

This giant small town is where we all live. Let’s make it liveable.