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Cyber-safety’: what are we actually talking about?

The federal government’s cyber-safety discussion paper is primarily concerned with protecting children online. But does it show an understanding of online and offline cultures? AAP/Dan Peled

The rise of social media tools and accessories has allowed us to be “always on” and “always connected”. The impact of this technological change is primarily social, and so far our communities have not come to terms with what these changes mean. The increased degree of contact poses a number of serious challenges for established social norms of civility.

The federal government’s current discussion paper about cyber-safety is concerned with the “cyber-safety” of children. As Paul Fletcher, parliamentary secretary to communications minister Malcolm Turnbull, said last week:

This is really an issue about protecting children against cyber-bullying.

The core problem, though, is that there is approximately a generation and a half of parents who did not grow up with these technologies. They did not experience a childhood mediated through an online persona with online friends.

These parents may be unable to help their child through an experience that is completely foreign to them. They may not understand what standards to expect of social media services when children spend almost as much time online as off.

But the problems around these issues – of shifting norms of social relations required for short-lived online communities – transcend problems associated with a single “at-risk” population. How do we support those in our various communities – involving our friends and loved ones – who display their vulnerabilities for all to see?

For the sake of providing effective advice to parents, the government needs to take a collective deep breath and work on defining these problems appropriately. The government’s public consultation on the topic is, one hopes, a positive move in that direction.

Media misinformation

One of the tendencies in media representations of cyber-safety is to collapse distinctions between different instances of abuse. We see, for instance, the conflating of sexist and racist epithets and death threats hurled at adults on one social network with the “covert bullying” of teens by their peers on other social networks.

One of the founding myths of the internet – the virtual community – is premised on the maintenance of order and exclusion of hostility within such communities. As Microsoft researcher danah boyd notes, teenagers make a distinction between bullying and “drama” to describe their online activities. Drama is defined as:

…performative, interpersonal conflict that takes place in front of an active, engaged audience, often on social media.

Many of the suggestions so far are simply untenable. They demonstrate a strong desire to help parents at the expense of appreciating a basic understanding of the relations between access, practice and identity on social networking sites.

For example, it would be frankly ridiculous to expect social networking sites to enforce a “plus parent” rule, where children under the age of 16 having to sign up to social networking sites with parental consent.

The special journal issue on Trolling and Negative Spaces of the Internet, just published through Fibreculture Journal, contains articles that in part describe the long history of deliberate and purposeful disruption, agitation and conflictual practice online.

Understanding online behaviours

As a number of articles in the journal indicate, trolling practices are primarily subcultural. This means they have meanings that most people would not be aware of and do not want to even know about. Not unlike the perennial issue of adults understanding new genres of music or fashion trends, the hyper-iterative subcultures organised around “memes” and “trolling” rely on most people not understanding what is happening.

Subcultures organised around ‘memes’ rely on most people not understanding what is actually happening. Know Your Meme

One of the primary mechanisms for ensuring that regular people don’t “get it” is to make these memes and practices as offensive as possible. “Offence” becomes emptied of all moral co-ordinates. Instead, it is an index of manifest “outrage” shared as quickly as memes themselves across social networks. What is shared is not simply an image with a caption but an invitation to be outraged or amused and so on.

The crux of the problem involves anxieties developing through society over the last decade or so about the way our life online reflects or does not reflect our broader social life. The way this problem plays out for middle-aged people coming to terms with getting older, parents with children just starting primary school and businesses protecting their users and online reputations are all different.

On top of questions regarding behaviour and social interaction is the impact of “big data” systems, whereby our actions online are “counted’ and "monitored”. Most people simply think of Google, but this includes our everyday shopping practices with Coles or Woolworths (both have swipe-every-exchange “loyalty cards” for this exact purpose).

The reason for insisting on distinctions between different online social situations is that each technology and technological change requires due consideration and a measured policy response.

It may sell more front-page news articles if all of these problems are collapsed into a single overarching issue – the “internet” or “cyber-bullying” – but this will not help parents help their children or help some adults users help themselves.

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