From the threat of ‘cyber-bullying’ to misogynist abuse, to fears about the invasion of privacy and the accessibility of pornographic material, serious concerns have been expressed over recent weeks about the increasing incursion of the internet, and particularly social media, into our everyday lives. For many of us it is difficult to imagine conducting our social and professional lives without the daily use of sites like Twitter or Facebook, or other internet forums, but are they, as some commentators would have us believe, having negative impacts on our societies? And if so, what can be done with the humongous entity of ‘the internet’?
In response to high profile media coverage of several tragic suicides of teenagers who experienced bullying and abuse on social media and other sites, the British Prime Minister David Cameron called for a boycott of websites which failed to effectively deal with such abuse. Similarly, the social media platform Twitter has come under pressure to alter its reporting procedure for abuse after high profile female activists, writers and political figures were sent bomb and rape threats through the site. Following the discovery of child abuse images on the computers of individuals convicted of recent high profile child murders, David Cameron announced a plan to block pornographic content by default on all computers unless users asked to receive it and asked internet providers to make greater efforts to block images of child abuse.
So what can emerging geographical perspectives on ‘cyberspace’ and internet usage tell us about these challenges and the likely effectiveness of these initiatives? In a recent review article in Geography Compass, Sam Kinsley pointed out the tendency to slip into either naively utopian or bleakly dystopian meta-narratives when talking about the internet. Whilst the development of the internet undoubtedly has the potential to democratically connect and engage people just as much as it aid those seeking to terrorise and abuse, these narratives or imaginaries fall into a further trap: they tend to cast the internet as a monolithic entity. Often this singular entity is assigned moral characteristics and subject to demands for wholesale reforms. But what if the internet is not one entity at all? What if, as Kinsley suggests, there are actually multiple internets?
These internets both shape and are involved in shaping the actions of their users, and are mediated through multiple devices from spam filters to smart phones, to social media platforms and webcams. Mark Graham has also made a similar argument in a recent commentary in the Geographical Journal about the use of the metaphor of cyberspace as a monolithic imaginary of the multiple interactions which exist between people, codes, information and machineries. Thus there is not just one lived experience of the internet or even any given websites or platforms, but many, and there are multiple ways for internets to enable empowerment and abuse. This raises questions about any one government policy or attempt to promote reform of a particular website or platform can fully account for this diversity of experience or be sure to protect against potential ills.
A further development which Sam Kinsley draws attention to, is the increasing blurring between the states of ‘online’ and ‘offline’. Particularly following the sharp growth in smart phone usage in recent years it has become difficult to separate the times and spaces in which people are connected to the internet to when they are disconnected. Furthermore, activities such as socialising, entertainment, working and relaxing increasingly incorporate a complex of both online and offline elements which are hard to distentangle. This means that, for example, in the case of ‘cyberbullying’, whilst abuse may start online or be enabled by a particular website or internet platform, it may also impinge on the offline parts of an individual’s life through technologies like text messaging or through face to face contact. How then can such challenges be ameliorated through internet regulation alone?
As has been pointed out in some of the media coverage of the recent surge in favour for internet regulation (for example, see here), the problem is always more complex and multifaceted than we would like to believe and needs to be understood as situated within a broader set of societal developments and changes.
Samuel Kinsely, 2013, Beyond the Screen: Methods for Investigating Geographies of Life ‘Online’, Geography Compass 7 540-555
Mark Graham, 2013, Geography/internet: ethereal alternate dimensions of cyberspace or grounded augmented realities?, The Geographical Journal 179 177-182
Boycott websites which don’t tackle abuse, says Cameron BBC News, 8 August 2013
Twitter ‘report abuse’ button calls after rape threats BBC News, 27 July 2013
David Cameron urges internet firms to block child abuse images BBC News, 21 July 2013
Online pornography to be blocked by default, PM announces BBC News, 22 July 2013
When politicians get the internet wrong, the internet can be ruthless The Guardian, 16 August 2013