Web's culture of opinion must not be ignored

By  Fr. Tim Moyle, Catholic Register Special
  • November 23, 2009
{mosimage}John Gabriel, an Internet games theorist/programmer, in 2005 developed what has become known as the Dickwad Theory of the Internet. It can be expressed as follows: One person + anonymity + audience = one “dickwad” opinion.

This theory is often used to discount opinions posted in the comment sections that accompany most news web sites. The often virulent and brutish tone of such postings has resulted in most authors, analysts and commentators developing a tin ear to these virtual opinions. Fr. Raymond de Souza, a columnist for the National Post, expressed this well: “I could write a column on mowing the lawn and before long the comment threads would degenerate into cracks about pedophilia….” 

Futurist Alvin Toffler wrote in his seminal books Future Shock and The Third Wave that a constant reality in modern life is the ever-increasing rapidity of change. He posited that change would break upon societies and individuals with such frequency and force that  survival would depend on the ability of our structures and citizenry to accept, shape or mould the forces that challenge the status quo.

It’s clear that Toffler was at least partly right. Change has been the catchword for our time. Barack Obama rode into power on the premise that he would transform the way things were done in Washington. Who among us has not purchased some electronic device only to have a new version released that rendered the original purchase (at least in the consciousness of today’s consumer) obsolete. In my 50+ years, I have watched with amazement as first LPs (long playing vinyl records) were replaced by magnetic tape, eight tracks, cassettes and compact discs to the point that today we download music onto microchips from virtual stores such as iTunes. Pitied now is the person who made a successful living selling records.

 In the midst of this vortex of change, the question that Catholic commentators need to ask, especially in light of the tsunami of hostile web postings in the wake of recent sex scandals, is does the Dickwad Theory still apply?

Blogs and postings on the Internet, long considered unrepresentative expressions of personal opinion, are now finding their way into the mainstream media. CNN has dedicated at least one daily show for what is called “a national conversation,” using real-time comments posted on such social networking sites as Facebook and Twitter. Political opinion and good old-fashioned muckraking, once spoken in smoky back rooms, have become virtualized on pages such as the Drudge Report and are now considered “source material” by many journalists and political workers. Messages posted through Twitter were thought to be instrumental in organizing demonstrations in countries such as Iran and Burma. Clearly someone is reading and reacting to these postings.

Much of what is posted as comment on the net may be specious, vacuous and simplistic. Yet its ready accessibility to anyone who uses the Internet as a primary source of news and opinion (consider that John Stewart is regarded as a valid news source by an entire generation) means that web site postings can become weapons to destabilize institutions and individuals.

The Catholic Church in Canada should be concerned about these developments as it addresses media coverage and comment which is growing ever more hostile to its mission. Amongst the rabid and bigoted messages, some are calling for Parliamentary inquiries into the sexual abuse scandals, while others are asking if the civil rights and privacy of priests should be respected, or should the church be considered a criminal organization. Messages such as these are becoming more and more prevalent among the chaff.

Lest these remarks be considered exaggerations, consider the following: 

1. Abortion was once considered a horrific crime, worthy of a substantial period of incarceration. Now people go to jail for protesting its ubiquitous presence in our culture.

2. Assisted suicide and euthanasia were once the stuff of medical horror novels. Now they are des rigeur, quietly practised in many of our health care institutions.

3.  Attendance at church on Sundays used to be a sign of intelligence and faith. Now many people are ashamed to even admit to being Roman Catholic and if they attend Mass at all it’s only at Christmas and Easter.

Change is indeed the constant of our life. This new culture of opinion that is expressed so freely and distributed so broadly across the web is ignored at our peril. We had better heed the lessons of history before our voices are the ones being deemed irrelevant by axioms like the Dickwad Theory of the Internet.

(Fr. Tim Moyle, the pastor at St. Anne’s parish in Mattawa, Ont., can be read on his blog: frtimmoyle.blogspot.com.)

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