You’re under my mercy on this domain. Why? Because I have admin rights. Indeed, the Internet world and society is based on the same principles of hierarchy as the physical world is, and both you and me are part of it. The key difference? Scale and ease.
Since the Internet wishes to be a global decentralised unregulated platform, there is no authority regulating behaviour on the internet. Of course, local laws and legislations apply, however ordinary behaviour is mostly regulated by specific services we use online, be it the features or community guidelines. Due to the vastness and complexity of the web and the fragmentation of behavioural expectations, the Internet Netiquette was established.
The purpose of the Netquette is to provide common guidelines, a codex of sorts, to behaviour online. Of course the Netiquette cannot be globally enforced, however it represents practices that, if followed, guarantee a safer, more inclusive and friendly community. The Internet has the power for great things, but unity can be its largest pitfall.
DOn’t abuse your power
Rule 9 of the Netiquette: Don’t abuse your power. It sounds obvious, and seems like it should be part of common sense, however it doesn’t get more common than human nature. In 1961, David McClelland popularised the term nPow, short for “Need For Power”. Power is nice right? Humans like power, however the craving for power is less likely to cause issues than the usage of given powers.
Online, power manifests itself in multiple ways. It can be based on the hierarchical structure of services and platforms such as forums and other types of social media, access based such as the developers of a service, or responsibility based such as public figures having an unregulated (banalisation) platform to voice their opinions.
It’s a good idea to have some form of content moderation when it comes to social networks and forum based platforms. Some may claim censorship, however online services still need to comply with local laws and regulations. Besides, some platforms may market themselves to specific types of audiences or make promises about their content, therefore they need to make sure they back up their claims.
Content moderators have more power than standard users, and it is therefore important they only exerce that power in accordance to the rules of the platform. However, power is likely to corrupt, especially when people feel like they have been wronged, or have their feelings / opinions / public image hurt. In this case, it seems very convenient and perhaps even justified for them to use their power to threaten or take abusive action against users they have non regulated disagreements with. Note that abusive means that there are no factual rule based grounds on taking the action.
Moderation power abuse however is likely to stir up issues with both other platform staff or the user base, leading into fights and wars and damaging the platform’s userbase and therefore reuptation. As a moderator, one should only carry out their tasks setting aside their personal feelings, and making a clear distinction between their behaviour as staff and their behaviour as user / leisure.
Common examples to such situation include smaller “unofficial” communities (communities making use of another platform) such as Discord servers or groups on Facebook, where either the moderators or the administrators / owners themselves decide to use authoritative methods to deal with users. Of course that isn’t prohibited, however it should then be announced, as the common user will subconsciously take the netiquette for granted.
When one has hands on access to a service and its inner workings, that’s where the possibility to do a lot of harm arises. Any online service that has registered users (a user can have an account) has databases and collects information be it strictly for operation or for more general data collection. A lot of this information is pirvate, personal and should be anonymised and protected to the full applicable extent, as well as be fully compliant with data and privacy protection laws.
While this type of power inlcudes the previous one, a lot more harm can be done, as data itself can be harvested. Undoubtedly, information is power, and it is both unethical and illegal (terms of service are granted for the organisation, not some individual developer) to snoop, spy and mishandle user data.
The more power, the more harm can be done, the more tempting it becomes to use that power for personal needs. Strict controls and best practices should be used when it comes to user data and organisations should make sure their developers and sysadmins cannot abuse their power to acquire information not meant for them.
Common examples include Dropbox, where any moderator (previous category) can access any user’s dropbox contents, even if no apparent reason is given, such a system flagging contents, or legal actions against hosted files on links. Good examples to follow are those of the likes of Protonmail and Mega where even if data is stored on company servers, encryption keys are stored by the client, therefore no company member can ever access the encrypted contents.
The third type that is often overlooked is the case of public figures: the power of opinion leaders. The Internet has made it easier than ever to access and convey opinions, and idolising fans are eager to follow what their role models are saying. This poses a massive danger as the power of the “wow” which celebrities have often overcomes the value of more factual infromation of some boring formal more certified source.
This becomes especially true for today’s youth, where the lack of a time before the Web and earlier stage of development may leave them very vulnerable and gullible to what their favourite stars are saying. It has become a tendency to confuse authority with public relevance, and on the other side, public figures often start over-extending out of their field to gain that relevance.
Even if a person doesn’t voice their opinions in the hopes and goals of reaching and influcening the viewpoints of others, each one of us should be mindful of the potential impact our words may have, as the power of words may even overcome that of reason.
Common examples include Hollywood actors, singers, rappers, … the list is endless.
Dear Internet citizen, if you fit in any of the above categories, remember to keep the usage of your power within boundaries, and when in doubt, ask for an external point of view (pov). If you do not fit anywhere, still follow these practices whenever you can and remind others to do so if you may see them slipping. If all of us try our best to honour the Netiquette, together we can contribute to a better Web, and perhaps overthrow the opinion that “Internet is a cancerous place filled with keyboard warriors.”