This is a major historical pivot. While in the past we’ve had to deal with mostly objective threats, now we must sort through a murky universe of subjective and false threats, without always having clear means of discerning truth from fiction. Moreover, through algorithms that analyze how people behave on the Internet and what stories they pay attention to, online marketers and media sources have grasped what cognitive psychologists discovered in the lab decades ago: Emotional content, including information that triggers our greatest fears—terrorism, disease, natural disaster—grabs our attention. Once captured with the help of complex algorithms, our attention translates into high click-through rates that may even be monetized as advertising and subscription revenues. For those seeking to profit from our fears, it’s a “race to the bottom of the brain stem,” according to technology ethicist Tristan Harris.
The Internet poses a dilemma: We need to have loose mind-sets to adapt to technology, yet we need tighter norms to regulate the destructive, normless, and fear-mongering behavior that it enables.
Just like in other areas of our lives, we need a tight-loose Goldilocks balance in these new spaces. The effort to tighten up our online spaces must balance users’ freedoms but still have adequate constraints.
Fortunately, tighter norms for appropriate behavior are starting to emerge in our new virtual worlds. Some of this is occurring informally. Hundreds of books, online manuals, and YouTube videos offer guidelines on how to act appropriately via email, tweet, text, Facebook, and more.
“Netiquette” guides stress the importance of remembering that there are actual people on the other side of our screens who deserve to be treated with the same respect we’d give them face-to-face.