In starting this blog, I’m going to just really mess it up straight from the top…by starting with a news story that’s a few days old. Don’t click off the page yet though! I feel like so valuable points were left out of the NRSC RT (National Republican Senatorial Committee retweeting, for non-nerds) hubbub. So, it seems that faking a RT causes quite a stir. The general discussion taking place over this controversy is organized around one of two poles (or blogs recapping both): accusations of violating Twitters bylaws and the Rules of Engagement more generally, and reminders of the importance (and innocence) of the parodic tradition that dominates both Twitter. Basically, either it’s amusing, or it’s abusive.
But that debate isn’t specific to online media. It happens around speech for god’s sake! By framing the feelings of unease this event created as a disagreement over when/if certain “rules” of messaging can be broken, some other, more online-specific, anxieties get glossed over. While the funny/bad conversation is what occupied most of the public arena, I think this really speaks to larger anxieties over authenticity and authorship, and how those things can be muddied and sometimes all together hidden thanks to the interwebs.
A fear of not being accountable online has always existed. Even as people were convinced that the internet’s capacity for anonymity would level the playing field and give everyone a change to voice their voice in equal measure, there were always others who’ve argued that anonymity would destroy public discourses because it does not hold individuals accountable for their speech. We can see a version of this anxiety over not know who’s speaking/typing/creating bubbling up through the way the FEC is constantly playing catch up with laws surrounding the paid-for language on online communications—I’m looking at you, long overdue Facebook regulations. Interestingly (unfortunately?), the rules applied to a totally new medium are basically exactly the same as those applied to pieces of paper—“Hey guys, label your stuff with some small, but not too small copy!!”
Even in spaces where there are not hard and fast rules of engagement, when norms get broken online, the anxiety around transgression seems to provoke a larger reaction than similar pushing of boundaries offline. Sock puppetry (when politicians/campaigns anonymously comment favorably about themselves in an effort to make it seem like citizens are on their side) is often the stuff of news stories, but the whole ghostwriting as/for supporters long predates the internet, just ask the guy culling the Letters to the Editor. Maybe it’s because electronic information often leads to a paper trail, making it easier to report on and more interesting to read about. Maybe it’s because we’re used to the offline rule breaking. Maybe it’s because we don’t quite know what the rules are yet.
I don’t really have any yes/no good/bad judgment on this, or other attempts similar examples. I understand it less as people breaking the rules and more as the rules are shifting as they enter a new media environment. In any case, it seems like this is yet another example in the growing set of attempts to play with the norms of authenticity and authorship (think of those TheRealTruthAboutX.com websites that came before and still flood the web), that’ll continue to happen more and more.