” Personal Responsibility and the Brave New World of the Internet” was the title of an editorial I wrote back in 1996 for my “Ask Alison – Managing Your Life & Career Column.”. The subject of the editorial was about taking personal responsibility for what you say and do, even if you are cloaked in the anonymity of a computer screen. In 1996, there weren’t any bloggers, social media, or even online dating. Cell phones were anything but “smart.” If you had a laptop you were mobile, but there weren’t any lightweight tablets or netbooks. The net had infinite possibilities, but it was also, unregulated. Since I wrote relationship and career advice, I really got to see the good, the bad and the unthinkable, unfold, online. I was cleaning out some of my old papers, I found the original editorial from 1996. So much of it seems increasingly relevant today, as the government has seen fit to regulate at least some actions, online.
If unfriending or unfollowing someone was the worst affront on the net, things would be fine, but there is a lot of genuine deception and anger, now, as then. When you do something unethical or unkind, online, it’s not a harmless act. Some believe that hiding behind a computer screen, protects them, but just like the sun’s damaging rays, what you can’t see, can still hurt — and there are consequences. In the mid 1990’s there was a widely publicized case of a young woman whose ex boyfriend decided to ruin her reputation, so he created a website with her photo, listing her personal contact information and offering her services as an escort. What seems kind of amazing to me is that she actually had real difficulty getting the site removed, and I doubt the she can or will ever be compensated for the damage this man did to her. I’m pretty sure he is unscathed, even though he did this terrible thing. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I won’t even go into the misrepresentations and personal problems of today’s online dating, online communities, and in social media. If you’re been on the net long enough, and you’re “out there,” you probably have some stories of your own.
From stealing intellectual property, to misrepresentations of all types, people do unscrupulous things, sometimes without even thinking about it. Ever since some bloggers and some companies decided to take advantage of the net, now all bloggers have to post disclosure notices or suffer potential consequences. I always disclosed because I felt it was the right thing to do, but being forced to do so, simply because of some other people’s lack of scruples, angers me. It is still our intrinsic sense of fairness and decency that regulates most of our decisions and human integrity can never be regulated. In 1996 I could never imagine that the FTC would regulate bloggers. Most of the online community doesn’t need the government stepping in to tell us the right thing to do! But when people are unethical in real life and online, we all pay the price.
There needs to be some accountability when it comes to online actions, but I would hope that it would be through personal responsibility. I worry about the real possibility that our freedoms will be curtailed because of the actions of the unscrupulous few. So today and every day, remember that there are real people will real feelings behind every computer screen. You may never meet them, or see them, or interact personally with them, but while some people would never even consider knowingly causing potential harm, others revel in it. The net isn’t an impersonal union of technology and hardware, it is driven by people. Think about that, before you fire off that angry letter, abuse someone’s trust, harm someone’s reputation on purpose. steal their work, perpetuate a rumor, spread hate on social media, or act deviously. Take personal responsibility because you know it is the right thing to do and not because a law says you must.
– Alison Blackman Dunham –