The Internet: Forum for Bullying, Forum for Friendship

03:41PM Dec 06, 2011 in category General by Madeline Harrington

I think it is safe to say that at this point, people have realized that the Internet is both a terrible and wonderful thing. Of course, there are many examples I could use to back this claim, but the one I’m most concerned with has reared its ugly head in the shape of copious articles about online harassment and bullying.

It seems that no matter what communication technology is popular at a given time, whether it be folded paper notes or quick, acronym-filled text messages, kids will be mean to other kids. Hey, who are we kidding; people in general will be mean to other people. But unfortunately, kids and teenagers can be especially brutal, and as the Internet has grown in accessibility and applications, it has become a major forum for bullies to attack their victims.

As a result of Internet applications like blogs, instant messaging, social networking sites, and media communities like YouTube, kids and adolescents have found it easier than ever to bully one another. No longer do they have to say cruel things to someone’s face – now, they can hide behind a computer screen or an anonymous screen name and say whatever they want without having to face the results.

“The Internet provides the perfect forum for cyberbullies, individuals whose aim is to gain gratification from the distress caused by provoking and tormenting others,” says Bully Online. “The anonymity, ease of provocation, and almost infinite source of targets means the Internet is full of predators from pedophiles targeting children to serial bullies targeting ... anybody.”

But the Internet is also a space in which people who feel disconnected can find others who are also in need of friendship, support, and community.

Pew Internet and American Life Project pointed out how many teens use online communities to make friends. “For some teens it is how they make new friends. ‘I like it. I just like networking, that’s about it,’ said one late high school-aged boy. ‘…my school is pretty big, so if I didn’t know a person I can meet them through MySpace and just see them at school then. That’s how I make friends, I guess.’”

Strangely enough, as much as the Internet provides the perfect opportunity for bullies to attack their victims from a safe distance, it also provides a space for kids to find people who won’t bully them. “For some teens, making friends on social networks is less about finding common ground, and more about avoiding giving offense,” says Pew. “One middle school girl elaborated, ‘I mean, I’m not really making new friends, I’m just not hurting peoples’ feelings. If I know that they’re friends with someone else that I don’t feel like they’re [going to] come and attack me, and so it’s safe.’”

In some ways, the Internet is the poison as well as the antidote. Kids and teens can easily and anonymously harass one another to the point where one of the victims may self-harm or want to end their life (read: Phoebe Prince, multiple suicides of homosexual teens, etc.) but it’s also a place where those same kids can find individuals just like them, suffering in the same way. The outpouring of “It Gets Better” YouTube videos has offered support and understanding to gay teens facing persecution everyday. Without the Internet, this massive effort of support from complete strangers wouldn’t be possible. But the question is: without the Internet, would that kind of support even be necessary? There’s no way to tell.

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Social Media Influences Public Opinon

04:14PM Nov 15, 2011 in category General by Madeline Harrington

The present situation at Penn State University surrounding the Sandusky child abuse is receiving a lot of attention from the media, but perhaps more noticeably, it’s receiving a lot of attention from Penn State students and their peers at other universities. 
For those of us who are Facebook friends with Penn State students or alums, it’s impossible to ignore the onslaught of biased status updates, article links, or just photos of student response (i.e. rioting). Whether we care to admit it or not, these posts influence the way in which we, as outsiders, perceive the situation and feel about the personalities it involves.
Joe Paterno, the former Penn State football coach who is practically a deity amongst Penn State students, is one of those personalities. Despite the fact that he knew of the abuse Sandusky was inflicting against the boys of his Second Mile organization, Paterno did not press for a proper response from his higher-ups after reporting Sandusky. Nor did he report Sandusky to law officials. Although this demonstrates a concerning disinterest in moral responsibility, PSU students are making Paterno out to simply be the scapegoat in the case because of their undying devotion to the man who led their team to victory so many years running. They are claiming that he is being unjustly singled out when the real fault lies with Sandusky himself and the administrative figures like Curley and Schultz.
Despite how much media attention the Sandusky scandal and now Paterno’s firing are receiving, there are many people out there who aren’t familiar with the case or haven’t heard the whole story. Perhaps the first they hear of the case is via a Facebook post from an old high school friend who attended Penn State, prefaced by a comment along the lines of “Can’t believe how terribly they’re treating JoePa. He’s a hero!” Whether or not this is true, it immediately affects the uneducated reader’s opinion of the situation, an article or link, whether they realize it or not. 
One online author, Bretany Pilko, describes in a PA township blog how she first heard about the PSU scandal via Facebook. “There were several debates going on among my 'friends' and they were very heated. There was shame and embarrassment; there was anger, betrayal, and a feeling of abandonment. The Penn State alumni couldn't believe that their college could do any wrong.” Pilko states that she needed to read the grand jury report for a real sense of what was happening, as her Facebook feed was too emotionally charged, creating a less than accurate portrayal of the issue at hand. Ironically, Pilko’s as blog post continues, she too falls victim to her own anger and disgust and fails to give an accurate, unbiased account of the charges and pending trial. 
This situation serves to validate a fairly new truth in our culture: social media is influencing our personal opinions and therefore, public opinion, every day. Soren Gorhamer, a writer for Mashable.com, points out that many people, himself included, get their news from their friends in social networks. 
“If you’re like me, each morning before checking Yahoo! or Google News or an online newspaper site like USA Today or CNN, you first look at the stories your friends and people that you follow are sharing via Twitter or Facebook.” He says we do this because we chose those sources of information, whether because they are interesting people in our lives or we trust them to be reliable. Regardless, they’re who we rely on the most. “After all, you didn’t choose the editors at newspapers and other publications, but you did choose the people and groups that you follow on Twitter, Facebook, or other social networks.”
Gordhamer also states that as our followers or subscribers on social media or networks increase, so does our influence. As a result, “power is increasingly more widespread. So-called mainstream media is no longer always the driving influencer of public opinion.” This is good in some ways, because as Gordhamer says, “we feel much less like passive bystanders and much more like participants who have a voice in the events in our world.” However, it’s important to remember that we are just as susceptible to others’ opinions as they are to ours. 
The Sandusky case is just one example of the ways in which huge news events are commandeered through social networks, social media, and personal journalism. Rather than check a professional news source first for the latest updates, we check our Twitter and Facebook feeds, looking to see what our friends have said about it. Immediately we fall victim to the influence of these technologies on our personal opinions. Enabling open discussion about current events via the Internet is a great tool, but as we are learning, it’s also a dangerous one that can influence our opinions to the point of completely changing the way we feel about the issues at hand.

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11:32AM Oct 25, 2011 in category General by Madeline Harrington

At a luncheon on Monday, TMZ.com founder Harry Levin said what everyone has been thinking for years: newspapers and magazines should get out of the print business, because it is dying. This is hardly a new idea, but it’s interesting to see that Levin, a man who’s made his (substantial) fortune off celebrity gossip and scandals, is so far ahead of traditional news outlets in his understanding of our changing culture.[Read More]

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The Bigger the Web, the Smaller the World

12:45AM Sep 27, 2011 in category General by Madeline Harrington

Every once in a while, as I’m sitting at my laptop with at least five tabs open, cruising effortlessly around the internet, I recall that there was a time in my life when things were entirely different. I clearly remember the first computer my parents owned - a clunky, box-like Mac, with a gray-scale screen and a few basic programs including a word processor and some games. We now call it our Dinosaur Computer, because it was so prehistorically simple, lacked streamlining of any kind, and existed before the evolution of computers really took off. Now, only 15 years later, looking at my sleek white Macbook, complete with a touchpad mouse, wireless Internet access, and a built-in webcam, that old computer really does seem like something out of the Stone Age. In some sense, the days when my entire family would huddle around that tiny screen, squinting at the blinking cursor, are equivalent to the era of cavemen. At that point a new society was beginning, and it evolved quickly alongside the technology that made it possible.

To ask what effect the web and social media have had on our society is to assume that our current society is the same one that existed prior to the advent of this technology. However, I disagree – I believe we have cultivated a new, separate society as computers, the web, and social media have grown. After all, society is essentially the product of how we as humans relate to each other, and as technology continues to become an even larger part of our lives and our world, the way we interact and relate is changing. In an article he wrote in 2000, Bill Gates likens the “Internet Age” to past technological and mechanical revolutions such as the discovery of electricity, the production of the telephone, the automobile, and the airplane. Just as these accomplishments completely restructured the way people live, so has the Internet. We have produced a new community, a new way to relate to each other, connect, communicate, and interact. We have not modified our previous society as much as we have completely outgrown it, moved beyond it, abandoned it.

Gates argues that the Internet “makes the world smaller.” He has a point, one that Dan Gilmor substantiates in the introduction of We the Media. His story about how his live-blog updates at PC Forum allowed a man across the country, in a different time zone, to not only keep up with the conference, but contribute to it via Gilmor and his blog, demonstrates just how much our world and social circles have been rearranged by the influence of the web and social media.

The Internet Age has catapulted us into a new realm in which we can literally connect with anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time. According to Gates, the Internet and all its capabilities have brought people closer together. We meet more people, interact with strangers, communicate all our thoughts to anyone who cares to read them, share information of all kinds, and can even become famous for our internet presence alone. As a result, our world-wide society has expanded, become more inclusive, while simultaneously becoming more tightly knit.

Whether or not this new, constantly buzzing society is a change for the better is a difficult claim to stake, and one that cannot be fully analyzed in the limited scope of this article. Although the web enables more interaction, it separates people with screens, microphones, cameras, and text messages. We are entirely transformed, and almost constantly connected. As technology changes, so will our society, and this hyper-interactive web-culture will continue to influence our growth.

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