Angels and Armies: How the Internet Is Cleaning Up Its act
The internet can be a cesspit of hate, harassment and conflict, but as Rachel England finds out, the kindness of strangers is putting it through rehab
By Rachel England /

When the internet first crackled into life back in 1969, it was impossible for its creators to imagine just how truly life-altering their invention would become. From the first “electronic mail” sent in a controlled environment to domestic adoption via screeching dial-up, then lightning-fast fibre optic cables and a computer in everybody’s pocket, the internet has seen many incarnations in its short lifetime, and the speed at which it has evolved is astonishing.

With “the next big thing” looming constantly on the digital horizon, society finds itself caught on a perpetual treadmill of catch-up, with no choice but to feel its way along. So it’s no surprise that the internet is a vast collection of knowledge and information – but one with flaws. Theft, fraud, harassment and abuse sit alongside Harry Potter fan-fiction and pictures of cats wearing slices of bread on their heads. It’s a minefield for law agencies, which are only now taking steps to govern this intangible sphere.

This global interconnectedness breeds good in equal measure, making it easier than ever before to ‘do your bit’. A single click can help spread awareness of a worthy cause, while platforms exist solely to bring strangers together for social benefit.

Connected community

Last December, art student Dominique Harrison-Bentzen crowdfunded more than £20,000 for a homeless man who helped her get home after she lost her bank card. In January a group of Reddit users banded together to provide dental care for a man who said his teeth caused so much pain he felt like “death was the only way he could get relief”.

More recently, a screen grab – originating from controversial site 4Chan – began circulating on Twitter, featuring derogatory comments about a man dancing in a club. Twitter user @CassandraRules gave the call to action: “Let’s find this man and tell him he’s beautiful #FindDancingMan.” Within 24 hours the man, Sean, was found, his story serving as an inspiration to swathes of the Twitter community lauding community spirit, acceptance and love.

“These are tumultuous times for the online world, but an atmosphere of care and respect is slowly beginning to permeate the web.”

Even the notorious gaming community has demonstrated acts of digital kindness, with World of Warcraft fans coming together at the end of 2014 toraise nearly $2m (£1.36m) for the American Red Cross in the wake of the Ebola outbreak.

Some might argue that this kind of “click activism” (or “slacktivism” as it’s known in some quarters) is – while well-intentioned – relatively meaningless: what tangible difference does sharing an awareness-raising article really have? Is liking a page about climate change really going to do help the planet? Did Dancing Man even want to be found?

Of course, there are all kinds of software programs available now to measure and quantify this type of digital currency, but far more valuable than a “like” here or a retweet there are the legions of internet users taking time out of their own lives to help others – often complete strangers – in an impactful, meaningful way.

At the most obvious end of the spectrum are sites such as 7 Cups of Tea, a place where anyone anywhere in the world can chat to volunteers trained in the art of active listening. They offer their kind ears for free because they know what it’s like to be alone in distress. Sarah Matthews, a student from Cambridge, found the site a few months ago.

“Simply knowing that there’s someone there, listening to what I have to say because they actually want to, is amazing,” she says.

Elsewhere, support networks have grown organically out of existing online communities. Reddit, for example, is home to the group No Fap, which offers encouragement and support to those seeking to abstain from pornography and masturbation. Here, more than 143,000 members chat, swap tips, celebrate one another’s successes and commiserate their failures on what is still a relatively taboo topic.

Reddit’s /r/SuicideWatch thread is another peer support network born from unlikely roots. Here, users in times of desperation can log on and request help, with members and moderators chatting to those who are considering harming themselves until their feelings have passed, or help has been sought.

Peer-to-peer support

“I only ever went on Reddit to look at stupid pictures and read jokes,” says Adam, who’s been a member for three years. “Then things in my life went downhill and I became seriously depressed. I honestly thought about ending it all. But then I found that subreddit and left a post about my feelings. Next thing, I’m chatting to a couple of people from different countries. One of them stayed online with me for five hours while I sorted my head out. The person was a total stranger but helped me when I needed it.”

And it’s not just peer-to-peer connectivity making the internet a nicer place to be, but peer-to-army connectivity, where Tumblr tags and Twitter hashtags have the power to mobilise entire fleets of users. Women sharing their tales of harassment via Hollaback and@everydaysexism have helped bring the issue into the mainstream spotlight, while blogs such as Racists Getting Fired and Bye Felipe, populated by communities with a shared vision of love and tolerance, make accountable those who create misery for others, on and offline.

A culture of care

These are tumultuous times for the online world, but a deeper atmosphere of care and respect is – slowly – beginning to permeate the web. Social networks themselves are helping things along, having moved on from straightforward “report this” buttons to pop-ups offering support based on troublesome search criteria (Tumblr) or notifications that a friend may be in distress (coming soon to Facebook). Newer networks are making strides in combating cyberbullying. Picture app We Heart It, for example, doesn’t allow comments, only ‘hearts’, while companies have finally wised up to the seriousness of online harassment and are introducing tools that make it easier to report.

StopIt, for example, allows children to anonymously flag bullying with a trusted adult on behalf of their peers.

The internet is a baffling place, but – arguably – no longer is it cold and lawless. The generosity of the human spirit has transcended the physical, and now also exists online too. It is set, hopefully, to grow as we continue feeling our way through the digital dark.

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Angels and Armies: How the Internet Is Cleaning Up Its act