The Era of Amplification

First published in Mediapost’s Search Insider, May 1, 2014

AmandaToddVideoMediapost columnist Joseph Jaffe wrote a great piece Tuesday on the Death of Anonymity. He shows how anonymity in the era of digital has become both a blessing and a curse, leading to an explosion of cowardly, bone-headed comments and cyber-bullying.  This reinforces something I’ve said repeated: technology doesn’t change human behavior; it just enables it in new ways. Heroes will find new ways to be heroes, and idiots will find new ways to be idiots.

But there is something important happening here. It’s not that technology is making us meaner, more cowardly or more stupid. I grew up with bullies, my father grew up with bullies and his father grew up with bullies. You could trace a direct line of bullies going back to the first time our ancestors walked erect, and probably further than that. So what’s different today? Why do we now need laws against cyber-bullying?

It’s because we now live in a time of increased amplification. The waves that spread from an individual’s actions go farther than ever before.  Technology increases the consequences of those actions.  A heroic act can spread through a network and activate other heroes, creating a groundswell of heroism. Unfortunately, the flip side is also true – bullying can begat more bullying. The viral spread of bullying that technology enables can make the situation hopeless for the victim.

Consider the case of Amanda Todd, a grade 10 student from Port Coquitlam, BC, Canada. Todd had been bullied for over a year by a guy who wanted “a show”. She finally relented and flashed her breasts. While not advisable, Todd’s actions were not that unusual. She wasn’t the first 15 year-old to experiment with a little sexual promiscuity after prolonged male pleading. It certainly shouldn’t have turned into a death sentence for Todd. But it did – because of amplification.

First of all, Todd’s tormentor was a man who lived thousands of miles away, in Holland. They never met. Secondly, Todd’s indiscretion was captured in a digital picture and was soon circulated worldwide. As teen-agers have been since time began, Todd was mercilessly teased. But it wasn’t just at the hands of a small circle of bullies at her high school. Taunts from around the world came from jerks who jumped on the bandwagon. A teen-ager’s psyche is typically a fragile thing, and the amplitude of that teasing was psychologically crushing for Todd. Desperate for escape, she first recorded a plea for understanding that she posted online, and then took her own life. The act that started all this should have been added to that pile of minor regrets we all assemble in our adolescence. It should not have ended the way it did. Unfortunately, Todd was a victim of amplification.

My wife and I have two daughters, one of which is about the same age as Todd. Because they grew up in the era of Amplification, we pounded home the fact that anything captured online can end up anywhere. You just can’t be careless, not even for the briefest of moments. But, of course, teenagers are occasionally careless. It’s part of the job description. They’re testing the world as a place to live in – experimenting with what it means to be an adult –  and mistakes are inevitable. Unfortunately, the potential price to be paid for those mistakes has been raised astronomically.

Here’s perhaps the most frightening thing about this. Todd’s Youtube video has been seen over 17 million times, so it too has been amplified by technology. Amanda’s story has spread through the world online. The vast majority of comments are those you would hope to see – expressions of sympathy, support, understanding and caring. But there are a handful of hateful comments of the sort that drove Todd to suicide. Technology allows us to sort and filter for negativity. In other words, technology allows bullies to connect to bullies.

In social networks, there is something called “threshold-limited spreading.” Essentially, it means that for something to spread through a network, the number of incidences needs to reach a certain threshold. In the case of bullying, as in the case of rioting or social movements, the threshold depends on the connections between like-minded individuals. If bullies can connect in a cluster, they draw courage from each other. This can then trigger a cascade effect, encouraging those “on the margin” to also engage in bullying. Technology, because of its unique ability to enable connections between those who think alike, can trigger these cascades of bullying. It doesn’t matter if the ratio of positive to negative is ten to one or even one hundred to one. All that matters is there are a sufficient number of negative comments for the would-be bully to feel that he or she has support.

I don’t know what the lasting impact of the Era of Amplification will be.  I do know that Technology has made the world a much more promising place than it was when I was born. I also know it’s made it much crueler and more frightening.  And it’s not because of any changes in who we are. It’s because the ripples of our actions now can spread further than we can even imagine.

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