A culture of responsible behavior is possible and could save the web

Here you can read a German version of this text.

In order to prevent the web’s demise, the emergence of a culture of responsible behavior is required. Examples from the “analogue” world prove that under certain circumstances, such a culture is possible.

Why do people participate in elections, even though they know that abstaining wouldn’t have any measurable impact on the result? Some other force drives them to invest time and energy into casting their vote: A learned and internalized sense of responsibility which derives from the realization that many small actions taken together lead to a big impact.

A similar principle comes into effect when people separate and recycle trash. This is a very popular “sport” in my country of origin, Germany. Again, the individual effect of not separating is negligible. And unlike with voting, there isn’t even immediate direct feedback about the positive effects of recycling (or the negative of not recycling) available. So technically, until very recently (before a law that went into effect in 2015 actually made recycling mandatory), there was very little incentive to put the effort into separating the trash. Yet, in 2006, an astonishing 92 percent of Germans reported separating their trash.

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The pattern of learned responsible behavior also shows when it comes to interactions in the public sphere. We apologize if we accidentally step on a stranger’s shoe, and if someone asks us for directions, we don’t just ignore it but actually respond. Even though, at least in big cities, the risk that we see this person ever again is minuscule. Theoretically, this person could just pull out their phone and check the directions, right? Still, we accept the request for interaction. And we don’t think much about it either. We intuitively (or subconsciously) understand that helping out is beneficial to society at large, meaning that indirectly it benefits us as well. Or we’ve just learned to act that way and don’t see a reason to question it.

Leveraging “analogue” patterns in the digital sphere

If it is possible that humans in many areas of life invest effort into responsible behavior which serves the public good (even if it might be just a “side effect” of selfish thinking such as wanting to feel good) without expecting a direct (external) reward, then this should be possible in the digital realm as well.

By now, everyone has received the memo: The internet changes everything. And some of the changes are reasons for concern. All the trouble with social media. The rise of alternative realities and made-up facts. The concentration of power in commerce and other industries, driven by ever-expanding technology platforms. The erosion of privacy. Lots of work is to be done, for sure. Unfortunately, so far, few intelligent solutions exist. The whole situation is too new, too complex, too convoluted. Too often, ideologies, the limits of human comprehension as well as wishful thinking are obstacles on the way to find judicious, effective approaches to deal with the emerging challenges.

Therefore, it might make sense to utilize the mechanisms which seem to work so well in the examples mentioned above. To put it as a question: How can the constructive process behind getting people to vote, to separate trash and to be polite to strangers, be leveraged to have people show similar behavior online? So that individuals would refrain from sharing a dubious piece of content (despite feeling the urge to do so), from participating in an impulsive online mob (even if it is tempting), or from always ordering everything from the same single online store (even if it is convenient), for the same reason for which they don’t throw glass into the garbage bin for household trash and for the same reason for which they participate in elections? Because they have internalized that in the mid to long term, this behavior will be benefit them as well.

A culture of responsibility needs to be taught

Essentially, this is about a sense of responsibility. One could also call it a culture of responsible behavior. Because these examples are all learned and are highly depended on the culture. The level of political participation varies even between democratic countries. Separating trash is still rather uncommon in most parts of the world. And the level, quality and quantity of interactions with strangers differs greatly depending on the geographical area. For example, the U.S. and Japan are world’s apart from each other in that regard (and of course there are big differences already within countries).

The behavioral patterns and norms we are looking at have to be learned. Which means they have to be taught. The digital realm is still so new that no culture of responsible behavior has emerged yet. But it’s urgently needed. Only that way, maybe the web still could be saved from its otherwise inevitable demise caused by censorship and regulation.

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