The Internet surprises me every day, and this time, Facebook’s the culprit. When she used Facebook to invite friends to her 16th birthday party, Dutch teenager Merthe Weusthuis opened a Pandora’s box of virtual catastrophes.
Weusthuis forgot to mark her party — a small affair at her home in Haren, Groningen — as private. Her friends invited friends. Their friends invited friends. The party went viral. Strangers across the country made websites and YouTube trailers advertising the event; they sold shirts with Merthe’s face emblazoned on the front. They found inspiration in Project X, a film chronicling the misadventures of an ill-fated teenager who advertises his own party on Craigslist.
The day of the party, Weusthuis fled. Meanwhile, over 5,000 revelers traveled to the city, looking for a good time. Though the party, according to an Australian news website, began in good spirits, things went south when those other spirits — as such spirits are wont to do — settled in. Five thousand opportunistic revelers quickly became 5,000 belligerent drunks destroying property, inciting confrontation with police and incurring over a million euros of damage.
The situation in Haren could not have occurred in a world without the Internet. Technology permeates and drives the story from beginning to end. Facebook facilitated Merthe’s initial mistake. YouTube and Twitter made it viral. In the days following the disaster, community members took to Facebook to organize public efforts to clean the wreckage. I read about the aftermath of the ordeal on Gawker and could keep myself updated via Google Alert, too, were I so inclined.
This kind of wild, unprecedented connectivity is the miracle — and the curse — of the Internet.
After situations like these — and after learning about the proliferation of websites designed to shame women, blogs made to belittle classmates, websites made to end careers — it’s easy to think the Internet is to blame. We’ve heard this argument before. Anonymity cultivates the worst in us. Without accountability, we flounder. At best, we troll. At worst, we riot.
But the Internet didn’t make us jerks. It did, however, make us more efficient, better-connected jerks — and then it put jerks across the world on display.
Young hooligans crashed birthday parties before the era of AIM and Gchat. Readers criticized newspaper columns before there were online newspapers — they just did it around dinner tables, on soapboxes and in public squares. The creation of the Internet was not the meaningful tipping point.
The Internet has allowed great things to happen. We can Skype with our friends in China and read blogs from the Middle East! That’s really cool; there’s no better word for it. And that simply couldn’t happen in the age of newsboys and “extra, extra, read all about it.”
Furthermore, even so-called Internet trolls (y’all know who y’all are) can and do align themselves with the side of justice. Take, for instance, the tens of thousands of anonymous donors who supported Karen Klein, the bus monitor who made headlines this past June when a video of middle school kids tormenting her surfaced on the Internet. Or look to the following behind campaigns like “It Gets Better,” which has inspired thousands of troubled LGBT youths to look past bullying. Barack Obama used reddit.com to connect with millions of voters, temporarily crashing the website. Combined, these events deliver a single message clearly: Good people use the Internet, too.
Yes, the Internet has made the world smaller, and this coziness has its costs. The Internet has made the nastiness of others — whether the hooligans in Haren or the bullies on Karen Klein’s school bus — national news. It has made these things important to me in a way they never could have been before. We can now take a tragedy and make it viral.
But though the Internet has done much to expose the cruelties of the world, the Internet itself is not cruel, nor is it kind. The Internet is a morally neutral body.
And the miracle of the Internet is that we can use it however we like.
Marissa Medansky is a sophomore in Morse College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.