Social networking has become almost ubiquitous in our society. Some 50 million users are on Facebook, millions more use MySpace, Twitter or participate in regular blogging. Almost all news sites allow you to comment in some fashion on stories by creating a user profile, logging in, and posting your thoughts to a comment section. The majority of these sites and companies have rules and Terms of Service (TOS for short) which govern such user participation.
An interesting, and fortunately, short-lived story highlights the current trend in online bullying. A site called BURNBOOK.COM was created as a Facebook style site which allowed gossip to be posted about students nationwide, anonymously.
The unquenchable thirst for cyber gossip is no doubt fueled by the general love for gossip, which has been in existence for centuries, combined with the media unyielding willingness to sell gossip to viewers. As fewer and fewer boundaries are respected, more and more people, particularly youth, want to jump in and be a part of gossip and the internet makes it easy and apparently painless.
So, BURNBOOK began with a ready market to post online about students, even organizing the information by town or by school. The problem of course, was that youth are under so much social pressure, and have such limited control over their social status, that an annonymous way to adjust the pecking order in school, to cause someone to break up with someone so that someone else can date them, or to get back at someone for something, that BURNBOOK became the perfect opportunity to negatively speak about others online.
Our society simply does not realize how powerful online speech is right now. The written word has so much perceived authority, that many people simply cannot distinguish betweeen what is posted at CNN.COM, FACEBOOK or BURNBOOK. It all seems real, and a professionally done website can make anything look authoritative.
What made BURNBOOK a much bigger problem though was the fact that the site was anonymous, and so the extra responsibility felt when you must plug in your email address and some personal information, which might disuade the average person from crossing the line, did not exist. The emotions behind someone who goes online to write something about someone else are just not respected yet. We do not realize how angry anger is or how frustrating frustration is, because traditionally we withheld 'snapping' about things because of our upbringing and because of the immediately consequences of losing our cool. Married people can yell and scream at each other, but what is the gap that needs to be bridged between anger and throwing a vase at someone? Maybe anger is a one, and yelling is a 10 and throwing a vase is a 50. So, there is alot of anger and mounting of frustration that we don't see after 10, which, vented on the internet, can manifest itself in some pretty damaging speech. Burnbook broke down the level of emotion needed to finally snap, because even if your anger were just an 11, far less than it would take you to throw a vase at someone, you could go after someone online and the affects would be quite subsantially worse than just yelling and screaming. In fact, many people who have been cyber bullied would prefer the vase.
Several incidentes began occuring on BURNBOOK which created concern. One was in Henderson, NV, a suburb of Las Vegas. You can read the story here.
Eventually, incidents shut the site down.
The idea of a BURNBOOK still exists in todays High School culture though, and while the idea has wider appeal and use by girls, it is by no means limited to girls, as both users and victims.
While BURNBOOK doesn't exist anymore, there are plenty of websites whose existence may be for noble purposes, but who can be abused for this type of use. Website owners are in a quandry because none of them want to be perceived as a platform for cyber bullying, but the cost of moderating a site that is used by thousands is quite high, and there will always be that tug of free speech which makes any sort of moderation of free speech a 'big brother' approach that we are just not comfortable with.
One interesting concept worth noting is the self-moderating approaches taken by certain web entitied such as eBAY. The feedback system was probably one of the most brilliant self- moderating ideas ever to hit the internet. The system is so effective that eBAY actually has very little policing that they must do of fraudulent sellers. And while there will always be people who find a loophole and abuse, they are relatively few compared with the number of transactions that take place on eBAY.
Still, even on eBAY, one must take a BUYER BEWARE attitiude. My guess is that until laws evolve further, we will see more BURNBOOKS come online, but they will have short lives.