The Anti-Buzz: Actually, the Internet is full of cats. Vulgarity is just a vocal minority that won’t go away.
The focus for the next few weeks will be the Internet.
Oh, I suppose that’s always the focus. More specifically, the focus of these articles for the next few weeks will be Internet access and Internet filtering and our relationship and attitudes toward those things. We love the Internet, except when we don’t; how do we, or can we, respond to unpredictable rudeness it can present to us?
So here’s a cute question: If the Internet were a person, what would they be like? I think there are dozens of clever, pithy answers to this question, but here’s mine: the Internet is a drunken redneck billionaire. Wealthy, influential, charismatic, but rough around the edges. Usually the Internet is lots of fun, but it can be morose, even despicably mean at times. The food and music are great, but it always feels like the other shoe is about to drop with the Internet, and the unpredictability leaves you on edge – awkward vulgarities, depraved behavior, who knows with this rock star friend of yours. Sometimes you wish the Internet would just shut up, especially when it goes off spewing its political opinions. But the indulgent, uninhibited Internet is often generous, and typically gives you what you want, even if you don’t trust it around your children. The Internet is not wise with its wealth, spending too much on drugs and black velvet cat portraiture.
I paint the Internet this way to frame the discussion about what we don’t like about it, especially in a business context – it can be hard to put stock into Internet Sentiment, because who says what about whom can be so capricious, and today’s meme is tomorrow’s bad investment, (famously, consider the film Snakes on a Plane). Much like there is “clean” broadcast television, is there a “clean” Internet? One that your kids can use? One that won’t upset you? One that you can trust your employees to use when they are on the clock? There are, of course, security and content control solutions, but managing policy is next week’s article. This week I want to convince you of the fact that the drunken redneck billionaire Internet is an irresistible, unstoppable force, and no solution is perfect.
So, an anecdote. I was having a Skype conversation with my fiance. As will happen from time to time, the wireless router on her end went on the fritz and the call was dropped. No big deal, as she got her connection back shortly, but there was a disconcerted look on her face when we got back. The brief interruption caused her to do something she doesn’t often have to do: when looking for her router, she saw the names of all the other routers in the neighborhood. One of them was named CAPSLOCK MASCULINE VULGARITY – mind you, not those words exactly, but something else that shouldn’t be printed here. Some neighborhood troll was giggling somewhere about their profanity’s prominence in a sea of innocuous router names like “linksys”, “netgear”, and “Jaime’s House”. This prank is trivial in the grand scheme of things, but it highlights both the Internet’s anonymity and its persistence.
It may be typical that a geek my age would quote Joss Whedon, but I’m reminded of the line from Serenity: “You can’t stop the signal.” There are too many people talking, and too many listening, that you really can’t expect to control any of it, or expect any of it to be silenced. If someone wants to slap you with profanity, they are going to find a way.
Anonymity is also one of the things that irks us about the Internet as it seems to enable the worst in people. The upside of social media is that anonymity is going away, and while there is a separate discussion to be had about lack of privacy, people are being held more and more accountable for what they say and do on the Internet, (So the next time your teenager spends all day on Facebook you can at least take solace in knowing they are out in the open, socializing in public, and otherwise not participating in the Internet equivalent of petty vandalism and punk crimes).
This simple incident is not one to galvanize anybody into placing regulations on routers so that they can’t be named certain things, but the idea of a neighborhood cluster of privately owned routers broadcasting something, anything at all, reminds us why the radio and television airwaves where given over to a few well-behaved interests in the early 20th century. That such an idea seems anathema to the Internet’s best interests should help exemplify the differences between what the 20th century was, and what the 21st will become, public vulgarity and all.
The lesson I want to take into next week, where I will begin to relate this to the professional world, is that perfection is never an option, but anonymity – especially in business – is an easy avenue for bad behavior. Until then.