Matthew Parris vs. Clay Shirky

A great piece in Saturday’s Times from Matthew Parris on the speed and ease of communication – and its possible impact on liberty.

Discussing the publication of the list of BNP members – and what bloggers have done with it:

What has changed is not the principle of what may be done, but the effortlessness and speed with which it may be done.

He argues, seemingly perversely, that the sheer effort of digging up information in the pre-internet era gave it a sort of viability – and that our personal privacy was protected by precisely this amount of effort.

Now, in the information free-for-all we live in today, the construction and maintenance of a “good reputation” is much trickier, he says. I certainly know of more than one person at my university who trawled Facebook for debauched and shameful photos – all of which went in a special folder he assumed to be of tremendous value for journalists of the future.

It all goes to support something that Clay Shirky has been saying for the last five years or so: that the ease of group-formation (and other Web 2.0 community-building tools) may be remarkable – and a potential reason for optimism – but that no moral values should be ascribed to it. The web merely facilitates previous patterns of behaviour – or even encourages “worse” patterns (as the trends in cyber-bullying, blog-defamation etc. show). He uses ANNA (pro-anorexia) forums to make his point in an interview:

I used to be a cyber-utopian. That view broke for me. I was teaching a class at NYU on social software. One of my students was a community manager for a magazine for teenage girls. They were shutting down the health and beauty boards because we can’t get the pro-anorexia girls to shut up with tips about how to avoid eating. I was thinking this isn’t a side effect of the Net. It was an effect. Ridiculously easy group forming for anorexics. Now, we have to move to a publish-then-filter world. That pattern suggests we’re moving the media world from decision to reaction. We can’t stop the pro-anorexia groups from forming. All we can do is watch and act.


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