The Rules of Engagement

Posted by Nishant Shah at Oct 29, 2012 03:50 AM |
Why the have-nots of the digital world can sometimes be mistaken as trolls. I am not sure if you have noticed, but lately, the people populating our social networks have started to be more diverse than before.
The Rules of Engagement

We need to stop imagining that the person on the other side of the interface is necessarily like us, and develop new networks of nurture.

Nishant Shah's column was published in the Indian Express on October 29, 2012.

Oh, sure, we are still talking about a fairly middle-class hang-out that happens largely in English and is restricted to people in urban environments who have the economic and cultural capital of access. But if you browse through your friends’ lists and compare it with, say, the network from five years ago, you will realise that the age demography has changed quite dramatically. I am not suggesting that the Web was only the realm of the young – let us face it, the people who actually created the infrastructure of the Web were not tiny tots. However, with Web 2.0 at the turn of the millennium, we have had an extraordinary focus on young people online.

But as the networks grow to include more people, there are now a lot of people online, who might not be the 16-year-old BlackBerry-wielding digital native, nor be in the “business of internet” but are finding a space for themselves, tentatively and steadily negotiating with this new space. Some of it might be because, those of us who were new kids on the block in the Nineties, are now older by a decade and are still on the block, but replaced by newer kids around the block. Some of it might be because there is an ease of access as portable computing devices grow more personal and get more people to use their smartphones as a gateway into the online worlds. But a lot of it is actually because the fold of the Web is expanding. The digital spaces of conversation are being integrated into our everyday lives and practices, replacing older forms of media and information structures and processes of social and cultural belonging.

And so, even though the penetration of the interwebz is not as rapid in countries like India as one would have hoped for, we do see a wide age group of people coming online, forming networks, and entering into conversations. I hadn’t really realised this, even though I was adding them to my social networks, that the digital immigrants are now here, and they are here to stay. It suddenly surfaced in my thoughts, because I recently heard a few narratives which made me dwell on the effort and the learning that one takes for granted but is a prerequisite for belonging to these new social spaces.

One of the first complaints I heard was about a hostility that many digital immigrants face when they start engaging with the social media. They follow the manuals. They read the FAQs. They look at patterns, and learn. And yet, even when they seem to be doing what seems to be exactly what everybody else is doing, they are often told that they got it all wrong. This is bewildering for many, because they cannot really see the difference. And the reason is that the social web is governed by a whole lot of unwritten rules and codes, which clearly are the rites of passage into the online world. These are not things that can be taught. These are not written in a guideline that tells you how to behave on Facebook or how to sift through the live-streams on Twitter. It is a fiercely guarded set of dos and don’ts which clearly distinguish between the digital natives and the digital immigrants, reinforcing exclusivity and exclusion. And when the digital immigrant violates these rules, they are often faced with a sneer, a sarcastic comment, or a dismissal as “not with it”.

The second thing I have repeatedly noticed is “calling troll” to people who do not always know these rules. Trolling is not new to the world of the internet. People who disrupt conversations and discussions by posting provocative or tangential information, by voicing hateful opinions, by passing harsh judgments, or sometimes by willfully breaking the rules of the communities, in order to seek attention and interrupt the flow of conversations are called trolls. Trolls are universally frowned upon and trolling wars often take up epic proportions because people get emotionally invested in them. Trolls are often shamed publicly, their mistakes brought into an embarrassing spot-light and ridiculed in back-channels or even in public discussions.

Calling somebody a troll presumes that the user is conversant with the rules of the game and is then breaking them, working with the idea that if you are online, you are naturally a digital native. The digital immigrants often create noob mistakes that can appear troll-like but are not intended to be so, and are often on the receiving end of a community’s hostility. And it is time, now that our online networks are growing, for us to realise that our presumptions about who is online need to change. If we are looking at an inclusive Web, we need to stop imagining that the person on the other side of the interface is necessarily like us, and develop new networks of nurture, which allows the digital immigrants safe spaces to experiment, make mistakes, and learn like the best of us. The next time, before you call somebody a troll, see if it might just be somebody learning the tricks of the trade. If they are doing something wrong, just politely point it out to them. And remember, acceptance is not only for people who are like us, but about people who are markedly unlike us.