Racism, sexual intimidation, homophobia, sexism... all hidden quietly behind a funny little term- 'trolling'.
A colleague pointed out to me yesterday the case of a student who without changing his name or covering his web identity (perhaps a better way than hiding behind an alias) had a little try at twitter trolling a female Professor appearing on a bbc radio show discussing her experience of trolling. His words were vile, unnecessary and I was disgusted.
I was reminded that recently I talked over with a colleague (not for the first time) the etiquette of professional and public life and social media. The 20 year old student who thought he'd have a bit of fun will have his name connected to those fateful words online whenever a future employer googles him. Even though he deleted the tweet newspaper articles have been written and snapshots taken.
Twitter has, on the whole, been a simple thing to navigate professionally- it is, generally, a space for highlighting causes, making brief observations, and recommending interesting things. It is easy to find those folk for whom 'interesting' and 'causes' mean attacking others and spreading hatred as much as possible.
The harder one to navigate professionally is Facebook. One easily finds similar hateful pages (as well as plenty of attempts at peace making and dialogue) including sexually denigrating and offensive areas, such as the recently highlighted ridiculousness of breast feeding pictures being banned while sexually explicit and often violent content goes unnoticed. The difficulty with Facebook however, is that while professional connections are there, it is structured to be a place of social sharing, relationships and virtual community. It allows me to keep in touch with friends spread all over the world from Australia to Hungary, Texas to Tokyo. We can catch up on each others photos, as well as getting a sense of people's day to day lives, bringing us in closer regular contact, if with less depth.
The challenge of course is that line between being a friend and being a professional figure. I have several colleagues who established professional pages, or just refused to engage with Facebook at all as this line can be so difficult to walk. At times I have wished I also had a professional page, but by the time we saw what Facebook really was it was too late to unpick the connections.
I know that there are 'friends' on Facebook who are there out of their interest in me professionally, who may not be so interested in the regular pictures of my daughter. But at the same time I know she is a part of my life that friends far and wide use Facebook to be a part of themselves. The reality is that whatever one puts out on the Internet, whether seemingly private or not, stands the chance of being seen more widely.
The silly student mentioned above had a link to his personal website on twitter, and other tweeters offering to send the abused Professor his mothers home address so she might repay the favour. Likewise I have taken the approach (for better or worse) that what is shared online may be seen by more than friends in the traditional sense. It can be personal, but ultimately I couldn't separate the public out from the personal because my life as a rabbi is not separate to who I am privately, and both need to be reflections of who I wish to be in the world. Inevitably there might be private pieces held back (as there are for most thinking people online, and in real life) but the world of the Internet is a public space where what is private must for better or worse always be conscious of itself. And while I am not at every moment being a Rabbi, my life does need to be a reflection of my Jewish and personal values in private as well as in public. Perhaps for student trollers this week, they need to remember the wholeness of their lives to come, and living their lives embracing values in all areas that should be lived out. Abuse is abuse, whether you hide behind an avatar or not, and what you put onto the Internet is never 'private' in the strictest sense. Ultimately the reality is no one should be living out the unpleasant things tweeted day after day, and the fact that people feel no shame in doing so is incredibly worrying. The Web can be an incredible tool for learning, connecting and growing, but has become in too many places scary and dark. Lets try and bring light and learning to all areas of our lives, real or virtual.