The Caring Internet

Yes!, despite all recent evidence to the contrary, there is a caring Internet, an Internet “more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before,” as John Barlow Perry long ago declared in his, uh, “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” There indeed yet remains an Internet that reminds us more of the promise(s) foretold during those dark days of the mid-90s — yep, they, too, were dark days — by Chris Locke and his collaborators in the Cluetrain Manifesto, than the Internet portrayed, neither inaccurately nor spitefully, by Farhad Manjoo in his recent NYT column:

Wouldn’t it have been kind of a pleasant dream world, in these overheated last few weeks, to have lived free of social media?…. Your social feed has always been loud, shrill, reflexive and ugly, but this year everything has been turned up to 11. The Islamic State’s use of the Internet is perhaps only the most dangerous manifestation of what, this year, became an inescapable fact of online life: The extremists of all stripes are ascendant, and just about everywhere you look, much of the Internet is terrible.

Yeah, so indeed we face the hilarity of Hillary and The Donald suggesting that it might be kind of a good thing if we could just sort of, you know, shut down the Internet, or at least the bad parts of it — neither of course able or even attempting to articulate just how we might intelligently discriminate between the bad and the good parts or exactly how we would go about doing the shutting down.

Well, Farhad, I feel your pain — and your exasperation, at both the real world events — “Terrorism, intractable warfare, mass shootings, a hyperpartisan presidential race, police brutality, institutional racism and the protests over it” — and the Internet’s “escalating, infinite loops of 140-character, knee-jerk insta-reaction.” Yeah, just like reading the NYT every morning, it really does seem lately that “much of the Internet is terrible” and much of the world is fucking terrible.

Much of the Internet is terrible, though? How exactly do we quantify this, since we are talking about the Internet, after all, which is figuratively, if not literally, unquantifiable? (Maybe the Internet is literally quantifiable by, say, IBM Watson, at particular microseconds, but who really cares about such an academic exercise?) I maintain there is still very much alive and kicking a Caring Internet, and I give you here its (or her) picture:

Aged Hippie.jpg

Okay, it’s not an official portrait of the Caring Internet, nor even of that (relatively) teeny-tiny 33 million+ member part of the Internet that goes by Care2.com. It’s just a tongue-in-cheek self-portrait/caricature (My Page Billboard) of one of those 33MM+ members and one of the couple hundred or so people that I interact with daily on the Internet on the Care2 site. She’s one of my “friends” or what I choose to call my social friends; we’ll talk later about this admittedly ungainly construction. Let’s call her Roxy, a name I’ve made up just this moment, for the purpose of this post, since I have no right to call her by her real name, if indeed the name she uses on Care2 is her real name at all. Some people don’t use real (people) names at all, and some don’t even bother with an avatar. I, for one, do use my real name on the site, though you can also find me there by my avatar, Spike of Broadway, may he RIP.

I’m not a real sociologist of the Care2 community, nor even a pretend one, but I assure you that Roxy is representative of much of the population I encounter on the site, over which I range rather freely (and, as I’ve said, daily. First, Roxy is female, which seems to be true of all social networks. (A real sociologist told me that.) But Roxy is also let’s say in her 60s and is or was or still somehow strives to be a Sixties’ Hippy. She loves Peace and music and animals.

So Care2 skews female, Boomer, and sorta-kinda lefty. Of course, there are plenty of guys on Care2, and guys and gals in their 20s, 30s, and so on. (A noticeable minority says they are 115 years old, and those who do so invariably identify themselves as female, for what that’s worth.) And while (based on server names) the site seems to have originated and operates in Australia, it also skews North American. Still, I have Care2 friends of all ages from the EU, Nordic countries, the Balkans, South and Central American, South East Asia, etc., etc., too many countries (and even counties) to name. Care2 is as global and stubbornly local as Facebook.

Of course, you don’t need to have “friends”or socialize in any way on Care2. Care2 is a click-to-donate site, transparently and unapologetically “supported” by advertising, lots and lots of relevant and irrelevant advertising: Click to donate to a cause — Rainforest, Big Cats, Animal Rescue, Stop Violence (Against Women), Oceans, Children, etc. — and the identified advertisers promise a micropayment for that click. A cheap easy way to feel good about yourself, to be a no-sweat activist for your cause(s)? Sure, that’s one way to look at it, not exactly inaccurate but, oh, somewhat cynical and decidedly judgmental. Maybe you actually do other things for your causes besides click-to-donate…

Hey, and as you click-to-donate, you earn Butterfly Rewards, or credits, which you can then redeem for: humanely raising animals, planting trees, feeding kittens, saving turtle-hatchlings, all kinds of do-good feel-good things. (A cheap easy way to feel good about yourself, to be a no-sweat activist for your cause[s]? Sure, that’s one way to look at it…) You can also earn Butterfly Rewards by reading articles (“We write over 50 stories a day ranging from animal issues to human rights to healthy living tips and so much more”); sending birthday greetings to your friends on the site (Because “You’ve brightened someone’s day and made the world a better place” — okay, hippy-dippy, but would you say inaccurate?); and of course signing (and creating) Petitions. So you do stuff on the site, which is satisfying in and of itself, and you earn rewards which you can the “turn into meaningful gifts” to the causes you care about. More on this later.

But to me the most interesting, and satisfying, thing about Care2 is the befriending business. I actually came late to this part of the community — for years I just did the click-to-donate and petition-signing, same as with other similar sites, but eventually I began getting “friend” requests — indeed, like Facebook, and I was equally suspicious — but, as with Facebook, I was too much the gentleman to turn them down. And, unlike with Facebook, I didn’t even remotely “know” any of these people, which was actually a big plus. As I accumulated Care2 friends, I also began receiving Green Stars:

What is a Green Star? It’s a simple “Thank You” from a Care2 member. There’s no need to respond. The sender is simply acknowledging that you’ve made a contribution to the community. Green Stars may be sent because you made a good post in a discussion forum, or because you took the time to make your personal profile interesting, or for a thousand other good reasons.

Unlike Butterfly Rewards, you can’t do anything with Green Stars, except just count ’em up, I guess, although the site already does that for you. But I found that once you start getting Green Stars, you want to give them as well, and I now freely, but with discrimination, do. There’s a virtuous reciprocity here that is functionally similar to but emotionally wholly different from the cluster-fuck vituperation that Farhad finds characteristic of our loud, shrill, reflexive and ugly social feed that’s making so much of the Internet terrible. I don’t want to sound like Johnnie Sunshine here, but “much of the Internet” is not terrible. Depending on where you go and what you do and with whom you associate, “the Internet” can indeed be terrible, but it can also be thoughtful and caring and impactful. Care2 is just one small but not inconsequential example of the latter.

But back to the friend thing on Care2. I get “friends” on Facebook; these are people who know you, or once did, in some manner, and whom you know or knew, even if much of the time you might struggle to remember exactly who, what, when, where, or why you knew this now friend-seeking person. It might even be that the only thing you do remember about this person is the single simple fact that you’ve always avoided them. But at least you know that. I don’t know any of my friends on Care2; I might like to, but I don’t ever expect, unless by sheer felicitous accident, to encounter them anywhere or anytime except on Care2.

When you send a friend request on Care2, you’re asked to identify your “primary connection” to this person as either Personal; Professional; Family; Other. Well, Other is a pretty forgiving category so that’s what I always choose, but I feel a little defeated every time I do so. Personal? Not really; I have no truly personal knowledge of this person: She seems like an un-celebrated but equally admirable Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and with a silly sense of humor, but for all I know she’s an ISIS operative awaiting orders to strike. There needs to be another category option here, some more apposite and pleasing version of social (network) friend.

Whatever that may be, and I’m certainly open to suggestions, I will say that while I don’t feel I really know any of these people, they are one hell of a lot more important to me than many of my Facebook friends. (As are, for instance, just to name a few other people I never knew, Henry James, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, John Lennon.) My Care2 friends are active members of a caring community, which comprises me as well.

And they are active. It’s easy to underestimate such activism, and to condescend to it as armchair activism or Slacktivism. I think this is not only ungenerous but wrong. We can’t all be manning the barricades all the time and even those who do man the barricades are dependent on a network of pitch-in supporters. No, it doesn’t take much to sign a petition online but, when you do, you are sending a message, staking out a position, lending hope, supporting others, you are caring, publicly. And guess what? More often than you’d imagine, the petition actually works, especially the local and hyper-local ones. (Okay, the 20 or so I’ve signed over the years against automatic weapons haven’t made a dent.)

Oh, and as for Twitter — where I actually spend much more time than on Care2 — let me just say that you get there what you deserve. If your Twitter feed is loud, shrill, reflexive and ugly, you have only yourself to blame. You picked these people, you know. (Okay, you didn’t pick the mindless ads.) Unfollow the vituperative cluster-fuck and don’t be vituperative yourself and your Internet won’t be terrible.

 

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