October 14, 2005

Of Herds

One of the first things they try to teach you in journalism schools and the jobs that come after that is to take your job very seriously. Then written word, even in print, has permanence and consequences. The same holds true even in the online sphere. Still, there seems to be this attitude about things online, be it blogs, message boards and other community-oriented activities, that the medium being new and powerful excludes it from the normal rules. I have a great degree of discomfort when it comes to dealing with such an attitude, because this is precisely the thing that would lead to its downfall, laying to waste one of the most promising things that I have come across in a long time.

I have been writing on this blog since late 2001 and on various other platforms before that. The major part of my career has been spent in different capacities in the online realm and in the previous job and the current one I have been nurturing and dealing with what we call in the industry "user generated content." So I can say with a fair bit of certainty that I kind of know what I am talking about here. And one thing that I have seen time and again is that people always confuse freedom of expression with the freedom from responsibilities. There is this feeling that having the browser between you and the reader somehow empowers you to say anything and then not have any responsibility towards what you just said.

Mind you, this responsibility covers things more just commenting on public issues or public figures. It is very much valid for your personal life too. Since Google has a pretty good memory, the chances are that once you put something in the public sphere, your lovers (former and current), parents might get to read it. The medium being the internet does not protect you from that possibility and anonymity on the internet has been one of the greatest myths of our time. If you can't stand behind what you said and accept all of its consequences (like lovers deserting you and mothers finding out about your latest kink), don't put it out there because the data will live on for a long long while, even after you are dead and gone.

Freedom of expression is not being able to say whatever you want to say. Freedom of expression is being able to say what you want to say, knowing fully well the consequences of your actions. Freedom of expression does not mean that people won't react to what you just said. In a free country, people have an equally valid right to react as it is valid for you to express yourself. Freedom of expression does not guarantee that blogging being the next earth shattering revolution will protect you from hooliganisitc behaviour by the bad boys when you rub them the wrong way. Freedom of expression does not mean that blogging is exempt from the normal rules. Wake up, it is about time you smelled the coffee.

I do not have anything against stings, exposes and passionate writing on serious subjects. What I dislike is the lack of seriousness the bloggers seem to have when it comes covering these topics. Seriously, was anyone expecting the unruly crowd to send a "thank you" note when they were exposed? Ask any investigative journalist and they would tell you that it is a tough life. Bad boys are precisely what they are because they don't play nice, if you were surprised by the reaction, then, like I said before, you don't take what you do seriously enough. Same goes for the most of the easily excited crowd who seem to believe that showing support buttons on their blogs will sort out the situation.

If the legal notices are indeed serious enough and the case goes to court, 50,000 buttons on a similar number of blogs won't make even a bit of a dent in the proceedings. Even with the comical nature of the notices, you have to keep in mind that legal system and law enforcement in India is still struggling to grasp even a basic concept of how things happen online. Beyond all the frantic chest beating and button making, nobody seems to have given much of a thought about what can actually be done if the case does go to court. Can we please get beyond the "outraged" feelings which seem to fill page after page of Indian bloggers these days? It has happened people and it will happen again, please do get over it.

It is no great secret that I am not too fond of the herd mentality in blogosphere. I dislike the manner by which how numbers add up to help erode the freedom and independence that made blogging attractive in the first place. In any case I am not a very social person, which is a stronger factor than the dislike I have for crowds that get easily excited. In the early days it is good fun. I have also had my fair share of overheated arguments on the blog, but eventually we all need to grow up at some point and learn to take a few breaths before we push the publish button. Blogging already has a major problem with its perception as a fad. The herd mentality, sadly, only adds to it.