The social web is the most egalitarian medium in history. It's also overrun by trolls, haters, misogynists, racists and bullies.
Coincidence? I think not.
In his 1994 book, "In Defense of Elitism," author William A. Henry III made the shocking claim that our longstanding myth of egalitarianism is dumbing down America.
Everybody loves egalitarianism in theory, but rejects it in practice.
When we want to enhance our professional knowledge, we don't go to Walmart to chat up random shoppers. We go to professional conferences, which is by definition an event of elites where non-elites are excluded—literally, with guards at the door.
When we want to enjoy a good baseball game, we don't find out where the local little league is playing and watch them play. We buy expensive tickets and go watch elite professional athletes play—or we watch the elites play on TV.
When we come down with a potentially life-threatening illness, we don't ask random strangers what they think the best treatment should be. We go to the hospital, which is staffed by highly-trained medical specialists.
We choose to embrace elitism in nearly every sphere of our lives. So why do we pretend to support egalitarianism on the social web?
The largely unexamined belief that everyone has a valuable contribution to make; everyone is equally virtuous; everyone has something valuable and valid to say; and that everyone deserves a place at the table is precisely what enables the public to support social media policies that are strangling social media.
After all, it's possible in one's lifetime to interact with only a tiny fraction of the users on a social network. Is it better to interact with a random selection of users or an elite, vetted selection?
I think it's time for Henry's defense of elitism to be applied to social networking.
Egalitarianism Is the Problem
Twitter was recently described in a devastating Buzzfeed article as a "primary destination for trolls and hate groups," an "unsafe space," a "well-known hunting ground for women and people of color," and "infamous" for being "toxic."
Those who have never been harassed probably can't understand how it feels to be shamed, bullied and ultimately silenced and therefore downplay the problem. But for victims, Twitter harassment can be devastating.
This, we're told, is the price we pay for Twitter's support of "free speech." But it's a problematic definition of "free speech" because it's twisted by a knee-jerk egalitarianism. In other words, we confuse free speech with egalitarianism.
Someone starts a debate or conversation and others reply. Twitter egalitarianism asserts that the voice of a person who wants to learn, explore, debate and influence is equal to the voice of a sociopath who wants to shame and humiliate someone based on their gender or race for personal gratification.
Yes, free speech should mean that all ideas are allowed and that no ideas are suppressed. But for free speech to benefit humanity, pockets or enclaves of elite expression must be favored.
The deranged local crank who believes "the end is near" should be allowed to stand in front of the post office with a sign. But free speech does not mean that The New York Times should be required to give him front-page column space.