by Eric Detweiler
In 2010, The New Yorker published a Malcolm Gladwell essay Malcolm Gladwell essay with this subtitle: “Why the revolution will not be tweeted.” In that essay, Gladwell expresses deep suspicions about both online forms of activism and the purportedly “weak” relational connections fostered in online environments. And he is certainly not alone in positioning online networks as unable to do “real” work, to bring about effective change, to build real emotional ties, and so on.
And yet there is cyber bullying. As Elizabeth Meyer and Rachel Hall point out, “Unlike traditional bullying, children who are cyber bullied can’t escape their attackers when they get home. It is a constant attack by their peers for all to see.” Meyer and Hall show that what happens in online environments, in “virtual” exchange, has powerful emotional effects. In a sense, online environments have the capability to strengthen rather than weaken the emotional punch of bullying. Cyber bullying can change victims’ lives and devastate the communities of which bullied children are a part. It gives us good reason, then, to doubt Gladwell’s claims about the ineffectuality of online networks. Such networks make things—sometimes horrible things—happen. Cyber bullying is certainly a dark phenomenon, but the fact that it happens online doesn’t stop it from being a reality.
Fortunately, online environments can also make powerfully positive things happen, which is where Meyer and Hall’s piece comes in. Combining an emotionally and intellectually provocative video, statistics and infographics, and a compilation of resources for parents and teachers, the authors have created a webtext that—in my mind—issues a significant challenge to anyone who would share in Gladwell’s dismissal of online activism. Meyer and Hall don’t just show the strength and power of bullying facilitated by the Internet, but respond to the problem of cyber bullying via the Internet. Rather than dismissing cyber bullying as a manifestation of the consequence-free self-involvement made possible by online environments (as Gladwell might), Meyer and Hall have taken to the network to counter the violence that very network also makes possible. And I hope and suspect that the work they’ve done here will have consequences both online and in the “meatspace” realms in which teachers, parents, and those who have experienced cyber bullying might come together and heal, working to stave off the dire consequences that might otherwise follow in the wake of such violence.