Friday, October 11, 2013

My gripes with online wrath

HAVING been an avid Internet user since its inception, I've come to realise there are three universal rules governing cyberspace.
First, there is no right way to spell anything.
Second, just because someone has uploaded 16 photos of her lunch/baby/self in the mirror does not mean people will not give a thumbs-up to her subsequent 23 photos of the same thing from a different angle.
Third, and most important, everyone can - and should - become vehemently upset about everything they read online, especially if it has nothing to do with them.
Cats eating cheeseburgers? Someone call the animal rescue hotline to save the poor pets from their abusive owners.
A young singer pushing the boundaries of sexy dancing? Someone call Madonna.
Parents burning their children's homework? Call the police - or put a photo of it on Facebook, with a similar effect.
Indeed, the online persecution that resulted this week after a group of students and their parents were photographed setting their worksheets ablaze after the PSLE exams was almost as bad as an angry bystander dialling 999.
Every aspect of the proceedings and their participants was vilified by observers who didn't let the fact that they knew almost nothing about the event stop them from denouncing it.
Disposing of textbooks that could be given away was wasteful, they said - only to be told later that no textbooks were hurt, merely assessment papers that were unlikely to be reused.
Some then changed their tone to say even completed worksheets could be passed down, if not to students here, then surely to those in Africa, the world's hypothetical dumping ground for all rubbish. Given the sheer volume of stuff that people insist on sending to Africa, it's a surprise the continent hasn't buckled under its own weight yet.
Others argued that destroying anything bearing the printed word is tantamount to repeating the destruction of knowledge under past tyrannical rulers. I worry the fumes from the mouldy newspapers and books under their beds may be affecting their judgment.
Perhaps the only justifiable cause for outrage was that the act of burning harmed the environment. By my estimates, this reason was mentioned by about 3 per cent of protesters, roughly the same proportion of people I observe bringing their own shopping bags to the supermarket.
The fact is that the homework burning exercise was - as later explained by its organiser, a colleague at Singapore Press Holdings - nothing more than a cathartic way to relieve stress after the back-breaking PSLE and promote family bonding.
It was not, as its detractors have suggested, an attempt to eradicate learning, a protest against the education system, or a stand against any objectionable content in the worksheets (except maybe trigonometry).
I can barely remember taking the PSLE, but I am willing to bet I would not have objected to burning my homework then or at any other point in my 16 years of schooling, nor would the act have killed my love and respect for books and edification.
I'm not the only one: a Google search on "homework burning" turns up countless gleeful images, a 2011 Facebook party event, and the enlightening tidbit that the act is considered a crime in Seattle.
Yet the ferocity of some of the reactions this week had me wondering if something in the water is making us all extra jumpy these days. A big part of it, as with any lapse in modern human behaviour, is likely due to the Internet.
It wasn't so long ago that the word "netizens" didn't even exist. Now, not only are they everywhere, they seem to be up in arms about everything.
The phrase "netizens are outraged" returns 67,700 results on Google. This is not nearly as many as the 25.7 million hits for "Miley Cyrus twerk" - which leads to some suspicion that the number of people upset about Miley Cyrus' dance moves has been severely overstated - but still significant enough to conclude that outraged netizens are indeed a trend.
A recent study of 200,000 Chinese social media users found that anger is the Internet's most powerful emotion, the one most likely to spread quickly and widely online.
This may be because the Internet exacerbates the worst in us: our boredom and judgmentalism, conveniently cloaked in anonymity. It doesn't help that the world seems to be caught up in a trend of hyper political correctness, in which any stray word or action is liable to invoke the wrath of dozens of interest groups whose sole raison d'etre is to get offended by things.
If you must be angry online, at least channel your anger to the right causes: people who share posts that say little more than "share this post" or who constantly ask whether their friends on holiday in foreign countries can help them buy back a bulky product that costs 14 cents less overseas.
For the rest of it, let's try something that existed long before the Internet: a large dose of empathy.
Let's entertain the wacky idea that people may have not the worst but the best intentions, give everyone the benefit of the doubt - and feed those cats the cheeseburgers they want so much.