Culture is the thing that lets you make a joke and expect other people to get it.
It’s also rules about behavior that inform us of how to assess someone. Manners, if you will. And our ideas about good manners and behavior need to catch up with the times.
Culture takes a lot time to change, and we’re still adapting to innovations that happened in the 1980’s, possibly the 70’s. Cultures tend to have time to adapt to new technologies and gradually develop rules about their use before the next big innovation. That changed a few short decades ago with the arrival of the digital age. By normal historical patterns, we should still be getting used to desktop computers, email, and BBS boards. Instead, we’re trying to figure out smart phones and all the things they do, plus social media and a shortened news cycle. And those things keep transforming every few years.
Culture is constantly dying and being born. Every interaction between two people either enforces existing culture or contributes to something new. The good manners of a hundred years ago are increasingly difficult to apply in the real world. Everything from gender to race to social stratification has shifted, especially in dynamic urban environments, and a lot of people are very confused about things like holding the door open for someone. That’s because there aren’t wide spread rules about new behaviors yet.
Politeness and manners truly are important elements of any culture. Manners are generally used to prevent physical altercations or abuse.
The internet is viewed as a questionable, even dangerous, environment these days because there are no enforceable social norms about good behavior online. Many people currently feel themselves freed from day to day, in person rules about interacting with people, which results in all kinds of aggression few of them would express in person.
In the real world, I can press charges against someone who threatens me. If a business owner is exposed for being threatening or racist, it usually will hurt them in their wallet. If Donald Trump were to be caught in Times Square screaming the things that he says on Twitter, no one would take him seriously. Revealed as an unstable individual in the physical world, his business deals would dry up and he’d be regarded as a sad old man assumed to have dementia. Unfortunately, most people don’t put the same weight on 3am Twitter rants as they would on raving in person in a public place, and so he’s treated like someone to be listened to.
Until the majority of people understand that they are one and the same thing, incidents like the election of Donald Trump are going to keep happening.
Our economy and our political scene has been transformed by technology, with no time to adapt or create new behavior rules. Rules and cultural expectations about the use of television developed in the 50’s and 60’s that are mostly still around, including rules about political campaigns. We don’t have any rules about using Twitter and Facebook for political campaigns right now. The president-elect can scream a hundred untrue things a day from his Twitter account, and no one can stop him. This is a big problem precisely because we don’t have any sort of cultural behavior rules or any way to enforce them on social media.
Twitter’s new tool to mute entire conversations is a good start. It’s a form of ostracization to refuse to listen to or take seriously someone who is screaming at you. In the physical world, ostracizing rude, belligerent people works. No one wants to hang out with the person who does nothing but insult their friends; that person either changes their behavior, or ends up alone with no social network.
Using technology to ban people from the social networks that they need in order to communicate with their community can be a very powerful thing. Small communities online having been doing this since the 1990’s, and it works. The major social networks need to get serious about policing abuse of their tools. Yes, there are debates about speech, but free speech doesn’t mean anyone has the right to photoshop a Jewish journalist’s daughter into an oven and send it to them over and over. There are real life consequences for that kind of harassment that need to extend to the digital world.
In a few generations there won’t be very many people left who remember the pre-digital world. Our great, great grandkids will likely grow up in a world where behavior rules are enforced online by laws and government law enforcement, developed by those who grew up in the early digital age. We have the strange luck of living through the transition, and witnessing a transformation of human culture that has never happened at this speed or scale before.