Back in 2005 (geez, I've been writing this for that long?), I offered my opinion of so-called internet “communities”. Well, nothing that has happened in the intervening years has changed my opinion. In fact, the internet has lived down to my expectations spectacularly.
Part of the problem, of course, is the fallacy of anonymity. If you want to bring out the worst in people, allow them to feel that there is no way to trace evil comments or actions to them. You will then find out that people who normally would never express an evil thought publicly can spit out huge amounts of vituperation in a heartbeat. I discussed this to some extent in my last post.
But that just involved speech. The internet has also become a cesspool for activities that range from the appalling to the totally illegal. The irony is that, thanks to hackers, most of whom are doing it for potential monetary rewards, people engaging in unwholesome activities are getting caught, their information getting leaked to the world.
The most recent example involves some site called Ashley Madison. As I understand it, the site is a place where people in existing relationships (including being married) can cheat on their partners.
What, dating sites aren't good enough anymore?
At any rate, there is much hue and cry about this, as much about what kind of person uses this site as about the fact that it was hacked. One article, though, had a subheadline that put it into a nutshell:
"The internet isn’t what we thought it was. Our ignorance will lead to more than heartbreak."
I don't know what the author thought the internet is, but I can tell you what it wasn't supposed to be. It wasn't intended to be a place to do bad things. The founders of the Usenet and World Wide Web intended for the system to be a source for information, for exchange of ideas, for assistance with technical issues, for open debate in a civil fashion.
All that got lost fairly quickly.
The Usenet was a large collection of newsgroups on every topic under the sun. Unfortunately, it devolved over time into a source to download copyrighted material, lampoon inexperienced users (an aol.com e-mail address was death), and engage in flame wars because someone had the temerity not to agree with the groups prevailing opinion. For example, I am reasonably certain that one of the reasons Linux didn't get more mainstream was that if you went to Linux forums to try to learn something and asked an innocent “newbie” question, you didn't get an answer. You got slammed by the experts who should have been offering assistance.
When the Usenet died, there were plenty of places to offer opinions and comments. If the site wasn't moderated, it didn't take long for the trolls to take over. Trolls used to just be annoying; now they go in for death threats.
The internet has not been a really safe place for a long time. Hackers have been breaking into web sites and their associated databases almost since online commerce began. Chances are pretty good that one or more of your accounts has fallen into the hands of hackers and been sold to sites that specialize in selling that information.
Of course, there are occasionally splashing articles of some hacker being convicted and sent up the river for a while, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Worse, the same governments trying to catch the hackers are using their tools to find out what we're up to.
There is so much we can do online. We can buy all kinds of legal stuff. We can download tons of free non-copyright protected material. We can watch movies (although watching a movie on a little bitty phone screen while ignoring the 72” tv on the wall is beyond me). The stuff we can do that is good is almost limitless.
It's also a very dangerous place with all sorts of the worst of humanity doing bad things. So anything one does online has to be done with caution. The internet is not a walk in the park; it's a trip though a minefield. Avoid the mines and you're okay. Do something foolish (like signing up for a cheat-on-your-partner website) and bad things (TM) can happen.
There's no going back to the good old days, but we can at least do our best not to make these days worse.