I recently had the wonderful opportunity to present a TED Talk on the Digital Age at Whitehall in London. The event, Tedx Whitehall Women, was hosted by the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The theme of the overall TEDx event was “Time” – and so I presented on how we should take the time to stop and think before falling down the digital rabbit hole. My friend and colleague,  Jesus Rivera, made the beautiful animations to support the talk. Below are the video of the talk and transcript:

TED Talk on the Digital Age: Stop and Think – Before Falling Down the Digital Rabbit Hole

The Internet has changed our world. We still do many of the things we did before the web arrived, but we do them differently. In many ways the Internet is a bit like a looking glass – it distorts, magnifies, and accelerates the things we do. As such, the Internet has the capacity both for good, and evil, making bad things much more ugly.

Essentially we are all Alice now. Just like Alice, we are falling down a digital rabbit hole, consuming on average 8 hours of media a day. But what if we stopped and thought about this:  how we fall down this digital rabbit hole will affect the Wonderland we find at the end of tunnel.

Unlike Alice, you see, we have the tremendous opportunity to consciously shape the ensuing Digital Wonderland and our ‘true reality’ that it, in turn, reflects. To do that, we must step outside ourselves and become aware of the various pitfalls we encounter on our journey down the rabbit hole, so that we do shape this Wonderland for the better.

So, what are some of the dangerous deeds that can make Wonderland a disaster?

Our notion of public space has moved from what we can experience directly in front of us – say in our own town – to an interconnected digital space spanning the world over. What we once might have only described to our friends verbally, we now surreptitiously capture on mobile phones and share instantly online – for a potential audience of 3.2 billion people, or half the planet. This connectivity – as well as the accompanying false sense of anonymity – offers tremendous power.

By posting information online, in an instant we can change a life forever. Both for good and bad.

It might seem like a good idea in the moment, to snap a photo of a pair of young men walking down the street who bear an uncanny resemblance to Tweedle Dum and Dee. But what of the cost to the unwitting subjects?

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Without consent, we are documented just for going out into public, our likeness spread around the world, posted online forever – or replicated in memes and reposted as quickly as the subject might try to have such content removed. Such enduring, and vast exposure can be devastating, driving the subject to depression and even suicide.

When bad things unexpectedly happen, like a plane crash or a bombing – we rush to find answers. Human minds abhor ambiguity – we need to know. Like the Caucus Race in Alice in Wonderland, rumours fly to fill the void, spreading quickly online. But sharing such disinformation pollutes the information space, sowing confusion and fuelling uncertainty.

The Digital Rabbit hole is full of mirrors – encouraging narcissism like never before. This might explain the 93 million selfies taken just by Android users every day. While you might love to look at yourself, is your picture the only thing you have to offer the world?

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Channeling your own Queen of Hearts and publicly shaming someone might help you work through your anger now, but what of the longer-term consequences? Brad J. Bushman’s research has shown venting frustration only makes you more angry and likely to be so again in the future. In this light it’s easy to see how our social media feeds contain so much complaint, as we grow more addicted to the online catharsis.

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But in all of this, we have a choice. As I implied earlier, our descent down the rabbit hole is still happening, and we can choose where we land as a human collective. As one of the Digital Travellers in this rabbit hole myself, I believe it’s time we seriously considered a New Social Etiquette befitting the Wonderland we all would like to spend time in.

So, What could be some of the rules?

We can stop and remember the person we find so funny is just a human too – and moreover, tomorrow you or I could be the subject a stranger finds so odd that he posts our picture online for the world to mock. Therefore, we must only post pictures or comments about other people with their expressed consent.

Instead of focusing on those things we deem different, we can opt to post about people and things that inspire or are beautiful. Or we can choose to post and share about worthy causes that might otherwise be ignored.  

Father and Son Raising Awareness for Alzheimer's - Ted McDermott AKA A Songaminute Man

Knowing what we do about our fear of ambiguity – among other cognitive biases – the new social etiquette will require us to stop and think when we see a piece of clickbait. Websites like Snopes are dedicated to helping. Before spreading a rumour, wait and ask yourself – how do I know this is true? Search the story. If it can’t be verified with a reliable source, don’t share it. If you find it to be untrue, use your time to inform others about the scam. Quite quickly we can help control the quality of content spreading online.

What if we devoted a fraction of our current selfie face time to reaching out to others?  Did you know there are some 4.5 million people living in difficult to reach areas of Syria, with 400,000 trapped in besieged towns? People like Wijdan here want so badly to connect with the outside world. She is part of a program called A Tale of Two Cities, connecting Syrian and Canadian kids. Her smile in the midst of war is worth the time and effort.

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It only takes a minute to show someone you care.

Instead of complaining, we can share heartwarming moments or awe-inspiring discoveries. If attention and engagement are what you are after, these posts will spread as much if not more than those containing anger and hate. Of course the best part is that you will have brightened the day of others, instead of tearing someone apart.

The digital rabbit hole leads us to an online wonderland – a virtual world that is at once separate from our reality, but at the same time a world that shapes our perspectives and thus each of us, right here and now, in myriad ways. This digital wonderland is essentially ours to make of it what we will. Because of this intrinsic connection, it is up to us whether this reality can transform into a positive Wonderland that helps shape our real world for the better or not. The choice we all must make is what kind of reality we wish to live in, now.

We can choose to bully, or better support others. We can spread rumours, or truth. We can post pictures of ourselves or we can connect with those who feel isolated. We can complain, or show our gratitude.

I challenge all of you to take the latter path – help shape the online wonderland by making the right choices here and now as we fall down this digital rabbit hole, by improving the way we communicate and interact online.  You can start this minute be posting something beautiful or a message of gratitude using the hashtag #FromTEDxWithLove. There are 200 of us in this room today – we can make this idea trend.

Thank you!

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About Author

Alicia Wanless

La Generalista is the online identity of Alicia Wanless – a researcher and practitioner of strategic communications for social change in a Digital Age. Alicia researches how we shape — and are shaped — by a changing information space. As the Director of Strategic Communications at The SecDev Foundation, Alicia develops campaigns and strategies for engaging beneficiaries in outreach and behavioural change. Her work includes developing a training program that deals with verifying information and the spread of content online, and has supported projects in the Middle East, Vietnam and the post-Soviet space.

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  1. Pingback: The year we fell down the rabbit hole – Nicole Matejic

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