The Rules of Online Engagement: It’s Time to Free the Internet

I love the internet.

The internet came to me as a prepubescent introvert via a dial-up connection. It helped me find people and places I craved to reach out to in real life – but online. From the Nokia feature phone to my OnePlus; through several OS, browser updates – my love has only grown.

The internet has allowed me to be somebody I didn’t have the freedom to be in the real world. I could share absurd comedy, find new art, listen to music that I liked and find people who had similar interests. I learnt to play the ukulele through the internet, I even learnt a language online.

I did anything I wanted online, the freedom made me feel alive!

The internet changed our whole generation. But then we grew up and got jobs. Millennials slowly moved from being the generation who would transform internet usage to the people who want to control it.

Their online existence slowly transformed into clean personal brands. From tweeting about our favourite sports team and the beef ban, we went to being the so-and-so of the such-and-such company.

Even as some of us continue to use the platforms to sharing our art, the commercialisation of online platforms has slowly seeped into our personal psyche. This capitalist approach to content (promote this, eat this, buy this) has basically left no space for natural language and conversation. Our intense need to curate our digital personality has become an epidemic of free speech.

Also read: The Rules of Survival Online

Twitter was initially a micro-blogging platform for not-so-shy Tumblr users. But in 2019, Twitter is basically divided into two sections – extremists and literate pedants. The right wing extremists currently control Twitter to the extent that, in India, out of the top 10 trending hashtags on an average, one is sponsored, two are promoted by brand content, two more may be something generic like #MondayMotivation – but the remaining five are all tags being made to trend by right-wing supporters.

Their proactiveness in ensuring the control of the platform has been such that they filed cases against Twitter for a liberal bias earlier this year, when other platforms like Tik-Tok were being banned by state governments.

Meanwhile, the literate pedants are absolutely fixated on countering those sharing a differing opinion for not using the exact right words, and finding new (useless) content angles to set themselves apart from the rest of the literate pedants.

Their understanding of digital activism is only as good as the self-serving rhetoric they choose to propagate. This has left absolutely no room for anybody else, except the college kids whose endless witty one-liners seem to float around as harmless banter – right up until they want to get famous too.

After the multiple failures of Facebook were publicised, Indian users became conscious of their rights and privileges online. So they actively began using community tools to curate content. Especially on Instagram, which has a higher number of women users, the platform seems to favour people reporting women activists. Until it was highlighted by some of the top women content creators, most liberals and women refrained from using these community tools as actively as the conservatives.

Even back home in India, after Subodh Gupta was accused of sexual harassment, he filed a defamation suit asking for Rs 5 crore against the Instagram account @herdsceneand – a handle that has been crucial in getting such stories out to the public. The account was deactivated. Just this week, the Delhi high court allowed the Instagram user to stay anonymous after weeks of uncertainty and pressure. 

Conservatives have also been successful in involving the Indian legislature into the picture, which in my opinion, does not bode well. This goes beyond an absolute and total internet shutdown – like in Kashmir.

As someone born in the era of the open internet, even the mere idea of online regulation scares me. And the involvement of government has been through inaction and the shifting of blame.

The Supreme Court has also asked WhatsApp to control ‘fake news’. Instead of creating policies to protect citizens like not allowing under 16 children on apps requiring personal data, and educating citizens, the government has constantly shifted the responsibility to the platforms to curate the content.

This helps in further creating unwritten rules which allow only specific cohorts to publish content on these platforms without consequences.

And if you do not know the rules of engagement, you can not play.

See the problem on these platforms are not bad words, but bad people. Liberals jump to block people using bad language to show opposition. Despite largely agreeing with the political left and the liberal, I get blocked all the time by the sophisticated pedant online, who think they are doing themselves a favour by not gratifying my behaviour. But really where does that lead us in terms of free speech?

The internet was always a place to allow anyone to create a “digital personhood” (coined by Aral Balkan). It was an open playground but now only the good kids get to play.

Also read: ‘That’s Not What I Meant’: Everything Wrong With Language-Policing Online

On the other hand, the police has not taken online bullying and harassment seriously, so this has not deterred the growth of extremist bullies or stalkers. Making the platforms regulate the community has meant that often reporting bullies does not do anything either, because the platform doesn’t have a conscience.

The bar for bad behaviour is set so high in some cases, and so low in some others, that it has become impossible to exist online without appeasing everybody.

We need to ensure that free speech on the internet stays alive. It has allowed us to explore and create in a way we could never before as a society. If it requires us to talk back to a few bullies and keep our sophistry aside, then so be it. It isn’t beneath anybody to say whatever they feel in response to what is said to them, it is natural human conversation.

This charade of righteous character and personality has become so very prominent thanks to everyone dreaming of becoming an influencer. We are now left with no option but to become that online personality in real life too. That is the reason why there are famous people from the entertainment industry who have made nationalism and bigotry, their “brand”. Natural expression has no such capitalist restriction. And whether it is politics or art, the human expression must remain free.

The line between the digital and the analog has dissolved. If you have not yet realised this the you have not seen the spate of violent videos online.

But this doesn’t mean we clamp down and ask everyone to shut up. We need to fix the people to fix the internet. The two are not different anymore.

And if we can not understand that humanity is as free online as it is offline, we are creating a future for ourselves where only the cyber-educated are allowed to exist. 

Sumedha writes to highlight the need for non-conformity and for practical politics free of labels. She is also a certified cat lady.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty