Sunday, 12 January 2014

Don't Be A Blockhead!

As internet social media draw more and more people into their reach, so the odds of them being put in touch with others, whom they would try to avoid in offline life, rise. Therefore, the major players very sensibly provide a Block function, so that their users can hide themselves from anyone who they suspect may attempt to harass them on line, or, worse still, track them down for committing physical violence in the real world. Risks identified, remedy provided, job done.

Nobody has to justify their use of a Block against a potential menace, and any procedure requiring them to do so would be a counter-productive deterrent that I could not support. However, with the right to use Blocks freely comes the moral responsibility to use them fairly and ethically. I fear there are so-called libertarians, libertines really, out there, who feel their rights to behave unfairly and immorally take precedence over any obligations to the rest of humanity, and there always have been, but they have to be written off as a lost cause, while I offer food for thought to the more conventionally decent of my readers.

If your social media involvement goes no further than using Facebook to swap gossip with your immediate friends and family, then you can control matters well enough by setting everything to Friends Only and taking care who those Friends are. However, once you start going to Facebook's Groups and Pages, or using Twitter, or Youtube comment threads , or that dying dinosaur of Noughties internet, MySpace, then you have gone public, and even if you have the technical facility to be a control freak to those internet users that immediately surrounds you, you have ventured out of your private zone and should behave appropriately to the virtual public place you have chosen to put yourself in.

And what does all that have to do with blocking, you may ask. Simply this: Internet forums and discussions run on the assumption that each and every participant in the thread can follow the development of a discussion entry by entry. This linearity is why we call them threads and not scatters! They are virtual representations of public meetings. However, it would soon reduce a discussion to chaos, if substantial numbers of its members could not see each others contributions. How is a participant supposed to make sense of a discussion, if, for a hypothetical example, the second and third commenters can't see each other, unknown to them, they do know the fifth commenter and seventh commenter can't see each other and they have been blocked by the fourth commenter and don't even know that they are there? The dynamics just become unworkable. Even so, there is a deplorable fad for capricious blocking spreading through Jersey's online political community amongst both left and right wingers.

Slamming the cyber-door in the face of a cyber-bully is fair enough, although such retreat cannot be credibly spun as victory. What is inexcusably rude to an entire group, though, is to refuse to interact with all in that group on an equal footing, save those one has already fallen out with outside of the group. And yet, we are starting to see a tactic emerging where certain people, unfortunately including a couple of my own friends, wilfully disrupt the functioning of discussion groups by blocking people who have made no attempt to be malicious. Blocking someone for expressing an opinion you do not share, but are too lazy to articulate your disagreement with, or because they do not feel safe enough themselves in the online environment to expose their offline identity or lifestyle, is both boorish behaviour and ineffectual politics.

Political discussion is all about the exchange and comparison of ideas. If you will only read what you already think, you will never learn anything new. Progress depends on considering one another's views and having the integrity to change minds when faced with better ways. Thus, the most important people to address and be addressed by are not your own comrades, but those on the other side to whichever your own may be. If, instead, you refuse to engage with them, whether from rudeness or spinelessness, then you are marginalising yourself as a participant in the political process, a mistake for an activist and a catastrophe for a candidate, and may as well get out of the game altogether.

Free and open public discussion of political issues is the foundation of democracy. Attempting to exclude others from engaging is a threat to this foundation. Unless you genuinely believe that somebody will ruin your life, if you dare to let them communicate with you, and I fully realise that sometimes there really are such cases, then do not block fellow members of forums and discussion groups. It does far more harm than good to both the cause of politics in general and your reputation in the eyes of anyone who realises what you are doing.