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The Internet is full of neighbors

Posted September 22, 2012

On the Internet, we're all neighbors now.

The Internet has played a big role in the news lately -- not least because of the YouTube video that's enraged a lot of people in the Islamic world.

Not all that long ago, most of us conversed with a very specific and limited group of people -- perhaps a few hundred folks we knew from school or work, the neighborhood, and some groups like church or local clubs. We knew that there was something we had in common with most of those people -- often times, quite a lot -- so we not only knew what was good form to talk about, but also what wasn't.

Our lives in that world were probably a bit more peaceful than they are today -- but they were also a lot more limited. The advent of the Internet and its spread into virtually every hour of many people's waking lives has broken down the previous order. It gives us access to more information than any of us could possibly process -- What's the temperature in Calcutta? Who rushed for the most yards in last weekend's college football games? What's the best way to get a wine stain out of white carpet? But it *didn't* give us access to the new social rules for using the tremendous megaphone that's in front of all of us.

In the past, most people's options for sharing their opinions and feelings with the wider world were limited. You could call a radio talk show, but that usually had a limited range and the host could always cut you off, or you could write a letter to the editor, but it had to go through that editor first before it could be published in a newspaper or magazine. And, again, only a limited circulation could be expected to read it.

But now, a public Facebook post, YouTube video, Tweet, or message-board comment somewhere can go global in an instant. So those feelings you'd previously share only with your neighbors now can be shared with everyone on the planet, all at once. So it's time to start thinking of everyone on the planet as our neighbors. That doesn't mean we can't hold opinions and shouldn't share them. But it does mean that a lot of folks need to dial back their vigor and ask themselves: Am I about to post something that I wouldn't say to my neighbor over coffee? Would I shout this over the fence at the people who just moved in if I didn't know where they grew up? Because when you say it online, you say it to the world...and you say it for the permanent record.

We've seen a full-fledged international incident blow up over a single YouTube video. Maybe it's time to start thinking of the Internet not as our audience, but as our neighbors.