Social Enterprise

Internet trolls, community, and the beauty of being human

As TechRepublic celebrates 15 years of knowledge-sharing among technology professionals, we tip our hat to the internet's greatest virtue.

Internet Sharing
 Image: iStockphoto/agsandrew

The internet enables one thing better than anything else humanity has ever created.

Sharing.

When we think of web forums and article comments and internet trolls, we don't usually think of sharing in the same way that our kindergarten teachers taught us about it, which was mostly about learning to be more kind and less selfish.

It feels like just the opposite on the web on many days as the anonymity of the internet enables people to say cruel things they would rarely ever say in person. Nevertheless, the nastiness of trolls and cyberbullies can — understandably — cloud our judgment about the real value of what happens on the internet every day.

People being able to share their thoughts and experiences and perspectives with a global community of human beings, regardless of geography, time zone, or traditional social barriers represents such a fundamental shift in society that it has forever altered the destiny of the human race in ways that we're just beginning to comprehend. The fact that this has only existed on a widespread scale for two decades means that we've barely scratched the surface of how it will alter the ways humans interact, organize, and help each other.

The business and technology worlds have been at the forefront of these changes. From the speed that business transactions are carried out to the ways tech support is delivered to the forums where people in niche specialties can meet and collaborate, the ways that the corporate world and the technology industry operate have been drastically transformed within two decades, and there's a lot more transformation still unfolding.

But, the heart of all of this is that one fundamental human characteristic: Sharing.

Nothing defines the human experience more than the ability to share what's inside our heads with each other. I recently saw this phenomenon brilliantly explained by Michael Stevens of Vsauce.

In his nine-minute YouTube video Is Your Red The Same as My Red?, Stevens lays out the case for how this concept of sharing separates a human being from every other living thing on the planet. The heart of this conversation begins at the 5:30 mark in the video.

"Animals can do all sorts of clever things that we do," said Stevens. "They can use tools, problems-solve, communicate, cooperate, exhibit curiosity, [and] plan for the future. And although we can't know for sure, many animals certainly act as if they feel emotions — loneliness, fear, joy. Apes have even been taught to use language to talk to us humans... Unlike any other animal, these apes are able to understand language and form responses at about the level of a two and half year old human child. But there's something no signing ape has ever done. No ape has ever asked a question... For as long as we've been able to use sign language to communicate with apes, they have never wondered out loud about anything we might know that they don't. Of course, this does not mean that apes or plenty of other animals aren't curious. They obviously are, but what it suggests is that they lack a theory of mind in understanding that other people have separate minds, that they have knowledge [and] access to information that you might not have."

That last bit represents one of the keys to the human experience, and the internet has been its force multiplier. We have records of humans sharing knowledge going back over 40,000 years in cave drawings. It was likely happening even earlier than that when humans would draw in the dirt with a stick to share ideas and information and tips. While those early humans shared info about finding food or shelter, today's humans take to the internet to share recipes and hotel reviews.

The concept is the same, but the internet has given it scale and forever demolished the geographic barriers between us.

This concept also built TechRepublic. It was 15 years ago this month that TechRepublic launched as a web-only magazine and peer-to-peer community dedicated to helping technology professionals make good decisions and keep the world running. In today's business world the people involved in tech have spread far beyond just the CIOs and systems administrators and software developers that were TechRepublic's sole audience a decade and a half ago. Our readers now include CMOs, CFOs, startup founders, small business owners, department chiefs, and tech-savvy workers who help their fellow employees learn the systems that make businesses run every day.

Still, TechRepublic's mission remains the same: empower knowledge-sharing between smart people in business and tech to help them excel at very difficult jobs. We do it in two ways. We find tech leaders and IT pros who are willing to write about their lessons learned and give them a platform to share those experiences. Of course, not everyone is a writer, so we also have an excellent team of talented journalists who seek out the most interesting people, ideas, and lessons and pull that information together and present it in clear and creative ways.

But ultimately, sharing on a global scale is the heart of what we do. It's one of the most beautiful things about being human. And we now have the ability to do it in more powerful ways than ever to help each other do better work, build stronger communities, and create a better society. So, thank you, internet.

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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