There are a lot of things I like about the internet. It's a wonderful information resource -- if you can recognize the difference between actual information and balderdash.
But it also has some serious drawbacks. It lacks accountability. The kind of accountability you and I have to have in face-to-face communications (which is becoming a lost art).
Take blogs. Please. I hate them. In journalism, there are some lengthy and complicated rules for writing news stories, and a similar set of just as lengthy rules for writing commentary. Believe it or not, it isn't just throwing your opinion out there. But that's what most blogs are. Unfiltered, unrestrained, top-of-the-head opinions, and because most are anonymous, there's no accountability or responsibility attached to them.
In today's world, a new blog site is added to the internet every 23 seconds. Andy Warhol once said that "in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes." What he should have said, was "in the future, everyone will have a worldwide voice -- whether they deserve it or not."
The gossip that used to be limited to the back fence now has a worldwide audience thanks to the internet. A lot of it should have been left at the back fence. But like gossip, accuracy isn't important. And it can lead to major misunderstandings and misperceptions.
You don't have to be responsible if you can be anonymous.
The internet has become a world of ghosts and avatars, a mask behind which far too many people hide. And like a letter sent without a return address, it is extremely difficult to track back to the original source.
As a result, it has become a source to easily prey on the young and inexperienced who now spend more time on the internet than they do watching TV (I actually saw a commercial recently on TV encouraging kids to go play outside, and referring them to an internet site to get ideas on what to do when they do head out into the real world -- how sad).
When you are a pre-teen or teen, for example, and your world is suddenly expanding beyond just your family, having friends becomes increasingly important -- even vital. It's why peer pressure at that age carries so much weight.
But real friends, in the real world, are often difficult to find and they require maintenance, something not required by the "friends" a young person can meet on the internet. Put up a MySpace website, and watch how many "friends" I can get with the entire world open to me. Instant validation of self, without any of the work, and sometimes heartache, necessary to find and develop real friends and real social interaction skills.
That need also can be exploited by those with less than pure motives. You wouldn't want your daughter suddenly getting phone calls from some anonymous person who gave his name only as Ilikelittlegirls641 and who wanted to be her "friend." But it happens on the internet all the time.
Because the net is so easy to be faceless and anonymous.
In the old days, if a person started living in a fantasy world, we'd put them away in a state institution for the mentally ill. Today, you can live your entire life in cyber fantasy worlds, places where you shop, go to restaurants, and meet other "people" -- all disguised by avatars that rarely have any basis in the reality of the real person.
I can create an avatar for these fantasy worlds in which I'm handsome, have six-pack abs, and a skill set that would make James Bond proud. Not one of those things is the real me (I'm short, fat and have trouble changing a light bulb without a manual and professional help). My disconnect from reality has become complete.
The problem is, that disconnect may carry over into the real world for some people. It's one thing to enter a virtual fantasy world and kill everything in sight. No accountability. It's another thing when you start doing it in the real world.
As the internet becomes more and more a critical component of our lives, its dangers rise exponentially because of that anonymity and lack of accountability. We are subject to phishing and spam and scams. Identity theft can ruin you. The gullible can become victims far too easily these days (do you really think that guy from Nigeria wants your bank account number so he can send you a free $10 million?). You have to be as wary on the internet today as you would walking down a dark street in a bad part of town in a major city.
And if you are victimized, you usually can't even give a description to police because the guy who robbed you could be in Stockholm and the only thing you can tell the cops is he had an internet signature of "imyourbestfriend296" -- which no longer exists.
The Mountain Home Public Library has been holding a series of seminars lately to help people avoid becoming victims on the internet. They should have been better attended.
Because as long as the internet allows total anonymity, allows people to hide behind avatars and icons without any component of responsibility, you just never know what you're really going to get -- and far too much of it is not good.