Stories of online cruelty are easy to come by these days.
JuicyCampus, a gossip site, has brought the kind of public scrutiny and humiliation usually reserved for celebrities into America's finest colleges and universities. Chat rooms about college admissions feature high-strung 17-year-olds unleashing their own deep-seated fears on one another in a torrent of "there's no way you're getting in" spew. At its very worst, we find that online viciousness can even lead to suicide, as it did in the case of a teen in St. Louis who was bullied on MySpace.
But don't be discouraged: It would be easy, with all of these devastating examples of the Internet's dehumanizing capacity, to abandon any hope that being wired might promote being kinder. Look a little closer and you will find that there is a competing narrative to this cruelty. One that is worthy of our support.
There is a little-discussed but growing movement among empathic techies and wired social workers to make the Internet a place of genuine connection. Blogs such as 37 Days (writer Patty Digh's daily exploration of what would matter to us if we only had 37 days to live), mommy blogs such as MomsRising and The Motherhood, and entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki's How to Change the World, point readers in a more gentle direction. So do the advent of Facebook Causes and other online networks designed to tug on the heartstrings of surfers.
Consider Lifeline Gallery: Stories of Hope and Recovery, a new effort by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to "raise awareness about the effects of suicide, reduce stigma, connect people to emotional support and offer help." The gallery also gives suicide-attempt survivors and suicide-prevention supporters a place to share their stories.
Suicide – a difficult subject to discuss in the public sphere – is treated with a tender humanity; users record a supportive phone message to be read by their own animated avatar. They can then embed this message on their MySpace or Facebook profile, or other personal websites. Suddenly, virtual is virtuous and 2-D feels multidimensional.
Cocreator Christopher Gandin Le is on a critical mission: "We're taking user-generated content to new levels by creating an intentionally compassionate space."
Sure, modern-day mean girls have brought scrutiny to a whole new level by writing scathing comments on one another's Facebook profiles. And 21st-century bullies have a far bigger audience than that found in the high school hallway.
But, as with all technology, we must recognize that it is not the tool that produces the mistreatment, it's the wounded humans using that tool. And just as so many have managed to manipulate the Internet, many can also be inspired to use it for good.
As a public afraid of the coarsening of our culture online, we must not only try to prevent cyberbullying, but promote cybercompassion. We must support efforts such as the Lifeline Gallery, as well as other online innovations by young altruists such as AllDayBuffet.org – a site that promotes social action and fun "because doing good shouldn't feel like a chore."
We must resist the inclination to brand all of the Internet as dangerous, evil, or dissident, and instead recognize it for what it is – one more communication revolution in need of intentional and inspired leadership.
When the printing press was invented, for example, many feared the inevitable sullying of young minds and the decomposition of a long history of oral philosophical culture. And there was a fair share of less than high-brow publications that came out of the press. As the medium grew, though, so did the number of people who stepped forward to support its more positive applications.
As the Internet matures and its influence widens beyond the Western, wealthy, and white, it is critical that we also keep our eyes on the entrepreneurs at the center of the compassionate Internet movement. Let's give them – not the cyberbullies, gossip sites, and spammers – the attention they deserve.
Courtney E. Martin is the author of "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters" and a columnist for The American Prospect Online.