Weaponized Social: Rethinking Online Scripts

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

In the Aspiration ethos, using tools comes second to cultivating and understanding the ecosystem where the tool would live and grow. In practice, this means creating organizational processes, positive feedback loops, conventions, etc., so that when technology is implemented, it is overlayed on existing modes of healthy and sustainable interaction. This year, we began exploring one of the broader and more nebulous ecosystems as it relates to the technology of the internet: the ‘social scripts’ that mediate online interactions.

In February in New York City, participants at the first Weaponized Social collaborated to rethink the scripts that mediate behavior and interactions online. A social script is a way of interacting which is learned and internalized. It is similar to a software script (e.g., “if X, then Y”), but it takes place in the brain and is externalized in social situations. For example, when you walk into a restaurant, a social script is enacted:

  1. A host leads you to your seat and asks what you’d like to drink.
  2. The server brings your drink order, and asks if you’re ready to order food.
  3. You say, “No, not yet.”
  4. You are given more time to explore the menu.

…and so on and so on. If the server firsts asks for a dessert order or if you want to refinance your home, confusion follows as a result of going off-script. One is not born with innate knowledge of ‘how to go to a restaruant’. The script is learned. Although persistent, social scripts are transient and always evolving.

However, social scripts for online courtesy and critique have not kept apace with the rapid evolution of online technology over the past twenty years. The harms of scripts that played out in small groups offline have become dangerously amplified via the network effect. The potential to cascade and amplify makes the harms of scripts more potent. In extreme cases, a social interaction can become weaponized, triggering a negative script that brings life-threatening consequences (think social media comments escalating to harassing death threats and forcing someone to leave their home).

Weaponized Social seeks to explore ways to diminish harmful social scripts through workshops, dialogue, and the creation of actionable and shareable content. On the other side of the coin, we have the opportunity to enforce positive social scripts. It is possible to amplify the healthy, joyful, and serendipitous aspects of online connections.

How to get involved:

Special thanks to Meredith (@maradydd) Sam (@metasj), and the Berkman Center (@berkmancenter) for help in parsing all these ideas.

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