TOPICS : Don’t depend on Web for democracy

Imagine the scene: a man stands on a pedestal while hundreds of people take it in turns to heap scorn on him. At first, they take issue with something he has written, but then, as the crowd works itself into a frenzy, they abuse him as the embodiment of some social evil.

Perhaps you are imagining a scene from China’s Cultural Revolution — a student accused of bourgeois tendencies, head bowed, harangued by classmates.

Or perhaps, if you were reading the’s travel website last week, you have a picture in your mind of Max Gogarty, a 19-year-old aspiring writer who posted a blog about his gap-year plans. Initially, the comments were limited to accusations of clichéd prose. But when a Google search by one reader revealed that Gogarty is the son of a writer who contributes to the Guardian, Max became the target for hatred of supposed media corruption and hypocrisy

Max Gogarty is not the first blogger to be lynched online, although he might be the youngest. I expect I’ll come in for some vitriol simply for writing about him. And since everything that journalists write about the web is deconstructed in search of hidden agendas, I will spare readers some trouble with the following disclosures. First, I am not related to Max Gogarty or anyone important. Second, I am writing this because there is a point I want to make about blogging, the internet and politics that is illustrated by the Max Gogarty story. Despite the utopian claims made on behalf of the internet, based on the fact that it is good for free speech, there is nothing humane or virtuous about a set of computer connections.

But as the case of Max Gogarty shows, there is no presumption of civility or community spirit online. His fate should be instructive to politicians. He was flamed because he was perceived to be bogus. Self-selecting judges ruled that he had no business writing for the Guardian. The message was transmitted swiftly, sometimes eloquently, sometimes wittily. His travel diary was extinguished. As an expression of mob will, it was very efficient. But that does not mean it was fair. Anyone who has spent time blogging will have noticed how people on the web coalesce into homogeneous groups, based on age, class, tastes. Tribes form and reinforce their identity with codes and shibboleths. Opinions are expressed and arguments made, but minds are rarely changed. This is a problem for politicians who need to build loose coalitions of supporters from different backgrounds and different generations.

Democracy needs to be more than a collection of discrete peer-to-peer conversations. It requires the accommodation of mutually exclusive views under a covenant of tolerance. It requires that citizens accept membership of a community and moderate their behaviour towards one another, even when they disagree. The web is no community. It is brilliant for some things. It does information, misinformation, entertainment and commerce. It does freedom. But one thing it doesn’t do is democracy. — The Guardian