As we move online, the definition of a community changes. Our neighbors aren’t just those people physically near us, but those we hang out with. This flexible definition of a community has serious repercussions for law and social morals: when we find kindred spirits online, we start thinking that everyone is just like us. At the same time, different communities hold us to different standards, and now that those communities leak into one another we need to apply context to our judgement.
In the 1970s bestseller The Joy Of Sex, we learn about a man who could only be aroused in a bathtub full of spaghetti. Back then, he probably led a lonely, normal life — albeit one in which he bought a lot of pasta and had a higher water bill than his neighbors. It’s unlikely that he had friends who shared his particular turn-on.
Communities define decency differently. In Canada, certain sexual practices are only legal when two people are present; no spectators. Until a 2003 Supreme Court ruling, many states outlawed specific sexual acts, and many of them remain on the books despite being invalidated by the high court. Communities were defined by their geographic boundaries. That’s why adult sites contain text like this: (and I’m just making this up here (okay not really)):
THIS SITE CONTAINS ADULT MATERIALS OR MATERIALS THAT MAY BE CONSIDERED OFFENSIVE IN SOME COMMUNITIES. YOU MAY NOT ENTER THIS SITE IF YOU ARE EASILY SHOCKED OR OFFENDED OR IF THE STANDARDS OF YOUR COMMUNITY DO NOT ALLOW FOR THE VIEWING OF ADULT EROTIC MATERIALS!
Which leaves me wondering: what’s the standard of my community?
Mass-market pornography died with mass-market media; today, specialization is the key. In the demented tapestry of the modern Web, one can find most any kink or predilection (see also rule 34.) Today, our ravioli romancer can find his pasta porn easily. And it’s probably porn his geographic neighbors won’t like.
Of course, these days, his community isn’t just the people next door; it’s the people he hangs out with online. The Web holds more than pasta porn for our Fettuccine Fancier — it’s where his friends are. The more he hangs out with kindred spirits, the more likely he is to conclude that he’s in the majority.
Surrounded by our fellow linguine lovers, or Daily Show fans, or Tea Party protesters, we’re emboldened.
The everyone-else-is-doing-it problem
Our brains are designed for tribes. The Dunbar Limit suggests we can track just under two hundred interpersonal relationships, and this appears to be wired into us: different primates have different Dunbar numbers.
The Web stumps our tribal brain. If many people in our cannelloni Casanova’s community crave soggy noodles the way he does, then soon, he believes himself to be entitled, part of what is — to him — the moral majority. He lobbies for noodle subsidies, marches in the streets in a Lasagna leotard, and raises money for entirely new kinds of food-borne illness.
To everyone else, he’s just weird.
Putting up walls
Many people, each convinced they’re in the moral majority, is a bad thing for consensus. These “moral minorities” emphasize how different we are from one another, rather than exploring common ground. Rather than becoming tolerant of one another, we reinforce the perimeter defenses of our own tribe, something that’s playing out right before our eyes in the zero-sum games and scorched-earth attitudes of (for example) US debates around taxation, health care, and gay marriage.
The ultimate irony of a Web that bring us closer to like-minded citizens is that it splits us apart from humanity. Rather than a smooth fabric of consensus, tomorrow looks like a noisy quilt of special interests and squeaky wheels.
It’s easy to forget that the Internet was built by hippies and hobbyists, idealists who were relatively free from commercial interests and were far enough from the mainstream to escape regulation. We may one day remember the days of Usenet and Napster as the Web’s Golden Age, a time before regulation and governance.
Fast-forward thirty years, and much has changed. The Web is the key to winning hearts, minds, and elections. It can undermine regimes and expose corruption. Because it’s so prevalent, we try to legislate it. We inspect packets, take down content, and put up firewalls.
This medium, spawned by utopian idealists, is looking more and more mainstream every day. Which, of course, collides with the idea of independent communities and squeaky wheels finding a place to live out their alternative lifestyles. It’s not much of a hiding place when it’s streamed into every phone, laptop, and living room. That has important consequences for how we legislate online behavior, and how our culture deals with a commingling of our public and private lives.
Making rules when everyone’s a freak
How should we govern this coming citizenry of moral minorities?
First, legislators must recognize that the Web gives us the right to be weird at scale. Adult content has long placed the burden of decency on the consumer. But the burden is really on all of us, because now community standards are contextual, despite the fact that we hold people to a fixed standard based on where they live and vote.
One day soon, someone will run for office. And someone who doesn’t agree with him or her will leak the history of all the online porn they’ve watched. Christine O’Donnell is dealing with a deliciously ironic witch hunt right now, in fact. We’ll have to decide whether a politician’s behavior is scandalous — because it’s not acceptable to even the most vocal, restrictive communities — or whether it’s his or her own business, and therefore should be discounted.
Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau famously said, “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”
But Trudeau also said, “when it becomes public it’s a different matter.” And now, as we live lives in the open, everything’s public.
We have three problems to deal with.
- Everything is available everywhere. The whole world’s kink can leak into anyone’s geographic community over a broadband connection, and you can find support for nearly any idea if you look hard enough.
- We’re enthusiastically public. Social networks, a sharing culture, and like-minded communities mean that we make everything from sexual preference to religion to political bias a matter of public record, often with unbridled narcissism thrown in for good measure.
- We have no common standards for decency. It’s impossible to filter for decency at the source in a truly world-wide Web. Need proof? Just look at what Wikipedia is dealing with when it comes to material that some consider inappropriate.
We can either adopt a “squeaky wheel” standard of decency — banning anything that offends anyone, thereby ensuring that we’ll be led by the blandest, and most secretive, among us. Or we can accept that everyone’s a bit weird, including lawmakers, and legislate from that starting point. Their nocturnal cravings shouldn’t exclude them from a productive daily life.
As citizens of the Web, we must understand that just because we’re in touch with like-minded freaks, that doesn’t mean we’re the majority. The Web will pull back the veil of privacy, and our culture will adjust to a world in which everyone’s a freak, and nobody’s worse — or better — for it. If we give up our privacy, we need to gain some contextual tolerance.
The walled gardens we so often decry are also the edges of our communities. What’s acceptable at home won’t fly at the office, as Facebook’s new Employers Portal should remind us. Right and wrong aren’t as simple as “community standards” any more; we need to weigh someone’s behavior according to the context in which it occurred.
Privacy discussions aren’t really about privacy at all. They’re about the fact that our communities’ borders now change dynamically, according to time, place, and medium. An Internet with garden walls, that forgets, is a good start; after all, good fences and a charitable forgiveness make good neighbors. But a generation that judges decency in the context of others’ communities, not their own, is the basis for a connected, civil society.
Ultimately, we need to rewrite the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you, if you had their friends, preferences, and communities. Anything else is just imposing your worldview on the rest of the planet.