It seemed like old times last week at the Yankton Chamber of Commerce’s “State of the Community” forum. One of the presenters was Yankton Area Progressive Growth CEO Nancy Wenande, who devoted a portion of her remarks to concerns about the negative portrayal of Yankton on social media. The gist of her comments was that it would be in Yankton’s best interest to curb these remarks in order to project a better image of the community to others.
My reaction was something along the lines of, “Well, good luck with that.”
I say that because I’ve been there, endured that. Her comments brought back memories of the early days of the internet age and the Press & Dakotan’s own pre-social media forum called “Yankton Chat.” Like so many things in life, it seemed like a pretty good idea in theory — allowing readers to interact with the paper and each other — but soon devolved into something uncomfortable and ugly. We initially resisted calls from local officials to scrap “Chat,” but when threats of violence started being made and legal notices began being served, we knew enough was enough.
But online, especially on social media, enough is never too much. The local forums are back, and they also allow people to share their views on a number of topics. But they still tend to feature verbal venom, trolling and the general trashing on a variety of topics.
Back in the “Yankton Chat” days, I found all this to be a discouragingly poor reflection of the community.
Now, it’s a discouraging reflection of humanity in general and Yankton is by no means alone in this phenomenon. Far from it.
Unfortunately, it’s who we are.
Not all of us, mind you. There are a lot of online users who have good intentions and refuse to delve into character assassination or cyberbullying. They put up with opposing points of view and let it go from there.
However, there are others …
We’re a generation (at least) into the internet age, and like television before it, the web has fallen far short of the lofty, noble ambitions that once propelled it.
When television first emerged for mass consumption, there were visions of it spreading education to the masses — it was seen as a tool for sowing a great mass enlightenment. But that lofty aim crashed and burned long ago.
The internet was likely seen with similarly soaring potential, and it’s achieved some of that with distance learning, e-medicine and the like. But it’s also turned out into a Pandora’s box for human ugliness. For too many people, it lets them unleash their inner bullies, firing off insults that they might never dream of doing in a face-to-face interaction. Discretion is for suckers in this realm, I guess.
The internet has failed in that respect — or perhaps, we have fumbled the opportunity again.
But that’s trivial compared to the more troublesome issues that the internet age of hyper-communication and unlimited reach has wrought.
In recent days, we’ve reported on cyberattacks on Yankton High School and the Hutchinson County courthouse that have compromised information and created major headaches. The school and the county may have been specifically targeted, or they may have just been the victims of random weapons designed to inflict pain upon and/or extort money from the “infected,” whoever they happen to be. But, whether they are specific attacks or random, collateral exposures, these mechanisms are manmade with malice in mind.
Also consider the issues of the internet being used to spread propaganda, to stir unrest, to promote hate, to hack the outcome of elections and to generate distrust and fear on a national or even global scale.
In my darkest moments, I see all this as humanity in full, foul bloom. It may not be what you are or what I am, but it’s what a segment of us tend to do. Bullies always bully; predators always prey.
That’s why the internet is such a disappointing medium. For all its marvels and potential, its awful possibilities cannot be ignored, mostly because they refuse to be. They keep popping up in my email junk folders or on random social media posts. It’s inescapable.
Can we ever tame this? Can we control our impulses? Can we learn to be discreet, discerning and respectful in a frontier haunted by rage and malice?
I know the answers already.
One answer is that the old days that I endured have never gone away, and people in general never really change.
Good luck with that, indeed.
Follow @kelly_hertz on Twitter.