I had the opportunity to see the delightful Arianna Huffington speak today. She spoke passionately about the democratizing effect of the Internet – how in this world of social media and blogs every voice has the opportunity to rise to the top.
She shared inspirational stories. A homeless teen is now enrolled at Harvard, after his blog post about life on the street caught the Ivy League’s eye. A mother has a book deal after sharing her story of learning not to rush her daughter through life.
The Internet, she argued, is a voice for those who previously lacked opportunities for expression. A platform where anyone can share their story with the world. A venue allowing anyone with something worth saying to add their voice to the public sphere.
And I don’t disagree. The Internet certainly has a democratizing effect, a unique chorus of voices and perspectives that previously had no such mass audience.
And that is great. I’m glad people have new opportunities and venues for self-expression, and I’m glad for admittance into Harvard and book deals. That’s all just great.
But I worry when someone proclaims the Internet a safe haven – and stops the analysis right there.
First – shouldn’t we worry about all the other homeless teens, not just the one who wrote an inspirational and moving reflection? Do we have the collective patience to listen to all of their stories? To face our own shame and acknowledge our complicitness in failing them?
Second – the Internet is a remarkable venue for dialogue, but its mere existence doesn’t mean that everyone is empowered to share their voice.
Too many of us are told that we have nothing worth saying, that our ideas and experience are not fit for sharing. We are cogs in the machine, unique and special in our own right but not important enough to care.
The Internet can change that, but the Internet doesn’t intrinsically change that.
I’ve been blogging for almost a year now, but every time I post and see my big ol’ face up there I still feel like a total tool. I mean, really. Who thinks they’re that important? It seems awfully self-important.
And nearly every day someone tells me that they love my posts. That they’re glad I write and they appreciate my perspective.
“But I don’t comment,” they often tell me. “I mean…you know.”
I do know. I’m a lurker at heart, too – terrified to share my view with the world, not out of fear of public speaking, but out of an overwhelming sense that I’m not important enough to count.
And I say this because I know I’m not the only one. Too many of us are raised believing we’re not important, that we don’t really matter, that our voice doesn’t count. Freedom of speech and equality are just hollow words on a page, crushed under the seemingly intractable self-doubt society has thrust upon us, disguised as individual self-doubt.
The Internet can give voice to voiceless, but only if we give first allow them that voice. If we raise every child to believe that they matter, that they count, and that, yes, of course, they should share their opinions with the world.