The Great Conversation

The Internet has been an equalizer in the same way that the printing press was back in the 15th century.  It’s impossible to write history as it happens, though – one must wait and observe first.

Lately, it occurs to me that some big social events have happened on the Internet that teach us what it’s about: Cecil the Lion, Alison Parker’s and Adam Ward’s murders were captured on video, and Aylan Kurdi, a 3 year old Syrian boy had his image published across the Internet.  The journey here is nearly 600 years long.

Gutenberg Press Replica - "PrintMus 038" by vlasta2 - Flickr: PrintMus 038. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons - breakthrough of the printing press was that words could be widely distributed.  More copies could be made, faster, and more reliably.  It became orders of magnitude cheaper to produce books.  People who could not have afforded to publish before the printing press were given something new.  Voices were starting to be given to the voiceless.

However, publishing a book still was not easy.  Even in the 20th century, publishing a book required a lot of effort.  Even after books have been written, getting them published and distributed takes money.  In spite of this, we still consider the whole thing to have levelled the playing field and given freedom of speech to many who would not have had it before.

Then, the Internet happened.  In the mid-1990s, “going online” started to become popular.  People who could not afford book distribution before had a new option.  They could publish ideas on the Internet.  Freedom of speech opened up another notch.  Not everyone knew how to build a website, but there were free services like Geocities and newsgroups.  A lot of new voices were heard.

Fifteen years later, social media has become the new platform for nearly everything.  Companies with elaborate websites are able to use social sites to create far more reach than their website can achieve.  The brands leveraging social media successfully know what they are doing.

In addition to that, every human in the Internet world has the ability to publish on the same platform as the giants of media.  Not every voice is listened to, but every voice has a chance.  Freedom of speech is nearly complete, and nearly ubiquitous.  There are people who are blocked by governments or social situations from participating in this great conversation, but that number continues to shrink.

Teacup on Keyboard

Now that we have this worldwide conversation over tea, what will we talk about?  The answer is everything.  Every subject is discussed, shared, commented on, and argued over.  Conversations are good things.  Conversations can lead to diplomacy.

Now that everyone has a voice, we have a new conversation to have.  Over the summer of 2015, it has begun.  There have been three major Internet events where the global conversation has turned on itself, and became about how we have the conversations.

“Cecil the Lion” was killed and a man was bullied, shamed, shunned and put out of business as a result.  Vigilante justice punished the man.  This was a lesson in being careful with our words, now that our words are able to reach so far.

Two journalists were murdered on video and people made their friends watch the footage.  People saw the video auto-play in their news feeds.  This was a lesson in being courteous to our friends who might not want this.

Syrian refugees fled their homeland and pictures of the dead showed up for everyone.  Pictures of dead children, strangers.  This was a lesson in respect for the privacy of others, and once again courtesy to our friends.

The ability to publish has been accomplished.  The Great Conversation is happening.  We can all participate socially whenever we want.  Now that we have made the conversation so great, we need to choose our words more carefully than ever before.

In this Great Conversation over tea, what will you talk about?