On Monday, the School of Continuing Studies’ Technology Management Program sponsored a lecture by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Andrea Weckerle – founder of the cyber-etiquette organization CiviliNation – on the need for civil discourse on the Internet.
The talk, entitled “Upholding the Core Ideals of Democracy & Freedom of Speech: the Need for Civil Digital Discourse,” focused on the need for a healthy online environment that fosters a thoughtful exchange of ideas. However, neither contributor saw this as the present reality.
“Because we haven’t yet developed online social norms,” Weckerle mused, “we have allowed this to become a truly global problem,” citing intentional provocation, release of private information, Facebook attacks, Google bombs, cyber stalking, and generic spreading of lies online.
“We all know about the thing with sticks and stones, that type of thing…Well I’m here to tell you that is not entirely correct,” Weckerle said, noting several studies that suggest the brain does not distinguish between physical and extreme emotional pain. Wales invoked the financial loss to individuals and firms brought about by emotional distress.
To realize a more positive online environment Weckerle emphasized the need “to teach people how to be responsible online citizens.” This entails developing what she called “digital competency” – the ability to resolve conflict without devolving into cyber bullying or trolling, for instance.
Wales then spoke about “the world’s most successful collaborative experiment” – Wikipedia. “The way it has worked is not through technology, but through a set of codes of conduct and social norms that has served us quite well.”
He credited Wikipedia’s swift quality control to the community of dedicated editors, who edit more frequently than the occasional anonymous editors. However, he acknowledged how the composition of this community – 85 percent male according to a United Nations study – affects Wikipedia’s content and priorities.
For example, contributors questioned the validity of an article about Kate Middleton’s dress while there were many articles on obscure Linux elements.
That said, Wales felt that the online collaboration and discourse that occurs on Wikipedia brings us closer to reaching objective conclusions.
“The best way to deal with other people is to talk to them,” he said. “I want to change the world in a positive way that is based on reason.”