THE ETHICS OF SOCIAL NETWORKS IN THE DIGITAL AGE
The Internet, digital technologies and social media have heightened our awareness of the interconnection between people, as well as the networked nature of reality. Social networks have always existed, but the Internet and online technologies have brought about a much greater consciousness of this fact, as well as intensified a range of social forces that constitute our networked reality.
A social network is made up of two elements: human beings and the connection between them. While the characteristic of a network is shaped by the qualities of people in the network and their connections, the network is a distinct entity, greater than the sum of its parts. In The Chemistry of Social Networks, Nicholas Christakis uses the examples of diamond and graphite to explain this point:
So you can take carbon atoms and you can assemble the carbon atoms into graphite and here we put together a particular hexagonal pattern of ties and you get sheets of graphite and this graphite is soft and dark. Or we can take the same carbon atoms and assemble the bonds between the carbon atoms differently and we get diamond, which is hard and clear. These properties of softness and darkness or hardness and clearness first of all differ dramatically, not because the carbon is different. The carbon is the same in both, but rather because of the ties between the carbon atoms. And second these properties are not properties of the carbon atoms. They’re properties of the group, properties of the collection of carbon atoms. Therefore, when we take constituent elements and assemble them to a larger whole, this larger whole can have properties that we could not have foreseen merely by studying the individual elements and properties which do not reside within the individual elements.
Whether our networked social reality in the digital age is going to be “diamond” or “graphite”, depends on the kind of person we are as individuals and how we relate to others around us. This perspective has important ethical implications for individual digital citizens, as well as institutions such as family, school, workplace, business and government.
Wikipedia, the online multilingual encyclopedia, has been regarded as one of the shining “diamonds” of the Internet. Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig has said,
Wikipedia has come to define the very best in an ethic of a different kind of economy or community: at its core, it is a “collaborative community” that freely and voluntarily gives to the world a constant invitation to understand and correct. More than any democracy, it empowers broadly. More than any entity anywhere, it elicits the very best of an amateur ethic—people working hard for the love of the work, and not for the money.
Not only is Wikipedia the most widely used encyclopedia in the world, it is also a community built upon an emerging worldview that is global and service oriented, participatory and collaborative at the grassroots, reflects and demands ethics of good faith and openness, as well as consultative in decision-making. It manifests in concrete form the kinds of human interaction widely considered as utopian and impossible.
EFDP engages its program participants to think broadly about the characteristics and ethics of social network in the digital age. These insights provide the basis for developing the perspectives, mindset and skills that a digital citizen needs in order to realize the potentials and meet the challenges of a digital age. They provide the conceptual building blocks upon which we find solutions to address concerns such as cyber-bullying and privacy, as well as ways to advance the best that digital technologies offer, such as heightened capacities for knowledge, innovation and collaboration.