Social media is the Wild Wild West of the Internet

From ‘Vital to engage digital citizens’, 18 Oct 2011, article by Reico Wong, My Paper

SOCIAL media and the Internet have become standard tools that Singaporeans use to share their political views and interpret what is going on around them, Members of Parliament (MPs) said in the House yesterday. As a result, it is vital for people to develop their “digital quotient”, said Dr Lam Pin Min, MP for Sengkang West.

Thanks to the high penetration of broadband Internet here, Singaporeans are among the most “evolved” globally when it comes to using social media, he said. But the vast amount of information on the Web and the relative lack of control and regulation over content makes it hard for netizens to distinguish between truths, half-truths and falsehoods, he said.

This is especially so for the young, he added. Likening social media to the “Wild Wild West of the Internet”, Dr Lam urged the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts to work together to inculcate “sound digital literacy and judgment” in the young, as part of their curriculum.

Sums up everything you find online really

Cue Ennio Morricone soundtrack. For a nation that has never experienced cowboy living, much of what our MPs envision of the wild west of yore is a romantic mishmash of Clint Eastwood Western movie cliches, where strangers stride into bars and the piano man goes quiet, or mercenaries square off at high noon in dead silence except for the rustle of a passing tumbleweed or the nervous squawk of a crow. Dr Lam, however, was merely echoing what our PM said during his National Day Rally just a few months ago.

We can’t be in every corner of cyberspace because there are a lot of cowboy towns out there. But there must be places which grow where people recognise that these are places which are reliable, where you can have a open debate, where different views are expressed, but it’s balanced, and if you go there you know that, well, to start off with you can assume that it will make some sense. Whether it’s right or wrong, we have to consider but it’s not rubbish.

Well I’m not sure which part of cowboy town this blog belongs to, but if I were to pay absolutely no heed to cyber ‘rules’, or lack this ‘digital quotient’ that Lam speaks of, then I run the risk of broadcasting material irresponsibly and hurting people, and eventually myself (especially since WordPress does have its own ‘sheriff’ who owns the right to block offensive posts, and of course the dreaded ‘Flag as mature’ function).  Of course there remain plenty of whack-jobs out there which nobody bothers to bring down because we take for granted that the majority of  surfers have learned their lesson having experienced trojan attacks and other penalties (financial even) for downloading dubious software or getting conned by blogshops all these years i.e we should all KNOW BETTER by now.

But for most parts, the internet/information superhighway/cyberspace, isn’t really the lawless free-for-all gangland that our government make it out to be. Depending on which side of the highway you’re on, some would even say it’s  an self-regulating ‘organism’ that has evolved, or rather IS evolving,  to attain a level of social homeostasis, an electronic ecosystem, or ‘cloud consciousness’  if you will, where users actively ensure that reliable information is improved upon, while the muck is disregarded or criticised. What’s important is not so much being ‘digital-wise’ and being able to refrain from clicking a link that says ‘See who checked out your Facebook profile!’, but to keep the online ‘dialogue’ open to get the most diverse feedback possible from other experienced users. Imagine a schoolyard setting with the internet out of the equation. Someone makes a wild prediction or starts a rumour and it spreads exponentially like wildfire. If you’re a rational person and you think the information is bunk, you would just be a dead link in the network. But if you had the tools and means to put a stop to the nonsense, like what the internet provides (peer-reviewed papers, research articles, facts and figures), you can counter the spread with a mythbusting snowball of your own.

Humans have been gossiping, proclaiming and preaching sensational falsehoods for as long as we had mouths and ears. The internet is just a chain-letter or a tabloid paper in another ‘viral’ platform writ large, so what constitutes this neologism called ‘DQ’ is really the same cognitive skills you would apply when people tell you about a scandal through the phone or face-to-face. Except that an internet rumour in published form, or an airbrushed image, just APPEARS to be more convincing. And that’s where learning from mistakes, identifying and penalising culprits comes in, which are common elements in any process of ‘natural’ selection, even in a ‘digital’ environment.  I seriously don’t see a need for Internet 101, because nobody ever taught us how to be discerning in reading the papers, listening to the radio or dealing with subtle propaganda on TV. You also can’t teach an adult, not to mention a kid, how to spot a hoax photograph (There are experts for that, and guess what, they’re online too!) What’s required for an educational, objective, genial yet exciting online experience for anyone, other than having a diverse group of users participating, is stuff you pick up only through experience: Etiquette and maturity. Still, as the saying goes, there’s a sucker born (online ) every minute (or second). But it’s the suckers and conspiracy theorists who keep the experts and politicians busy, and let’s face it, untruths/frauds/scandals are FUN, both for the believers AND debunkers, and serve as learning experiences for everyone. Pity the victims though.

Apparently we haven’t come out of the ‘wilderness’ in more than a decade. In 1996, another well loved PAP stalwart was already using the cowboy analogy way before our PM or Dr Lam, and that’s none other than the original digital ‘cowboy’ himself: George Yeo (Wired, but not wild, July 1996, Asia Inc)

The new frontier has opened, and it is a little like the Wild West. There are open spaces and people want to do their own thing. But once you settle the frontier, you’ve got to have law and order for contracts, for a legal framework, and to protect your property. In any society, a good balance must be found between order and disorder, between tradition and creativity.

Cyberspace will always be like an oriental bazaar. There will be big shops, small shops; good products, bad products. There will be cheats and thieves. But cyberspace should allow legitimate businessmen trading honestly to contribute to society and add to human well-being. Hence regulations are necessary.

Oriental bazaar! From the ‘Magnificant Seven’ to Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves! No wonder surfing the net felt like a magic carpet ride back then. Today you can even tell iPhone 4S’s SIRI your three wishes like Aladdin’s genie. Sure, the internet may have lost some of its magic, but certainly none of its charm (thanks to its users i.e humans). Let’s just leave it that way, shall we.


One Response

  1. […] professionals in psychiatric field madder than the patients they treat – Everything Also Complain: Social media is the Wild Wild West of the Internet – The Temple of Thoughts: Democracy Imperfect – New Nation: Indifference? What […]

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