Each year, TIME magazine recognizes the Person of the Year. In 2006, that person was “You.” Social networks such as Myspace and online services such as YouTube were growing, and TIME had sensed a pending revolution in how we use media. People were no longer passive recipients watching TV or reading papers; now, anyone could share their opinions and views with the world.
However, this revolution has had its downsides: paranoid nutjobs and conspiracy theorists also had a chance to be heard.
The Web has been more transformative for minorities than for the mainstream population. In the 1990s, the only trans person in a small village felt very alone. Going online allowed them to find support and safety among peers. For sexual minorities, the Web can be a lifeline. In the same way, anyone with a rare hobby can find peer support, safety, and happiness online—model steam train collectors, for example, can effortlessly create worldwide online communities. This is the upside of online communities.
However, people with destructive fantasies, suicidal tendencies, and eating disorders—even potential school shooters—can also find validation online. This can be seen in the conspiracy theories and false information spread on the Internet. New rumors spread from one country and language to another faster than ever. The Web is more efficient at spreading information than any other means in history. Information can be useful or harmful, and we cannot prevent the spread of harmful information.
When the Internet became generally available, for a while it almost seemed utopian. We had created an open and free network that the entire planet could join, free of charge and limitations. No distances, no borders, no geography: one, unified world.
Now that we have lived the online life for a few decades, we have realized that the Internet is no utopia. In many respects, it is more like a nightmare. The Internet is a reflection of the real world and shares in its wickedness and greed. It has become a place where criminals can seek victims across the globe, where elections are won and lost due to online influencing, and where fake news spreads faster than facts. Our real-world conflicts and wars are also expanding online.