I have been using the internet for about 18 years now. I still remember my enthusiasm from participating in an online theological debate in 1992 with a person in Europe while I was at school in Ohio. At the time, this was quite revolutionary. I also remember getting flamed by an anti-Catholic for defending the Church’s ban on contraception.
From those experiences and many others like them, I have grown to have a love/hate relationship with the internet. On the one hand, I greatly appreciate its ability give me access to serious theological writings, beautiful artwork and connections to other great people. On the other hand, I can’t get over the feeling that I need to take a shower from all the filth and slime that covers cyberspace. Aside from the greatest evil on the web – pornography – there is the sheer viciousness that most online discussions involve:
[W]hat is it about the internet that leads some people to be so vicious? [W]hy are some people so badly affected by hostile activities online that they will even commit suicide?
From the beginning of the internet some people have used it to threaten and abuse. Back in the days of USENET, many forums were populated by trolls (people who post messages to get a rise out of another reader) and flames (inflammatory and derogatory messages).
Why? First, because of anonymity. “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”, has become web wisdom . People believe they can create a fake untraceable webmail address. This also explains the success of pornography; people don’t think that their online activities can be traced. In reality, most people leave digital fingerprints which can prove that they are dogs.
And then because of a lack of accountability. If you don’t know who said something or did something you can’t hold them account for doing it. People feel free to be racist, sexist and otherwise inflammatory because their friends and family won’t find out. This has led to a shocking degradation of normal civility. Just check out the comments below a controversial article on a popular magazine like The New Republic. Some of the sentiments are appalling.
Nothing is greater proof of Original Sin than the internet, and this holds as true for Catholic blogs as anywhere else. Look at the most commented posts at your average Catholic blog, and you will see a discussion that quickly devolves into personal (and often vicious) attacks. As Catholics, we must take seriously the call of Pope Benedict:
I am inviting all those who make use of the new technologies of communication, especially the young, to utilize them in a positive way and to realize the great potential of these means to build up bonds of friendship and solidarity that can contribute to a better world.
It is also the case that many bloggers themselves will say things about others (often bishops) that they would never say to them in person, because they would inherently recognize how uncharitable the comment would be. Yet the act of posting it online does not include those preventative signals that we get when talking face-to-face.
In my own family, I strictly control the use of the internet by my children. I want them to be mentally and spiritual mature before I let them loose into the wild environs of the web. I would rather them be technologically inept than be spiritual destroyed by their access to the evil corners of the online world.