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Social decency could prevent another bad century

As the New Year approaches, Time magazine has named the ’00s the “Decade from Hell” for the U.S., the worst 10-year period since World War II.

Time cites 9/11, the attack on the USS Cole, the George W. Bush vs. Al Gore presidential election, two wars, two market crashes, Wall Street scandals, Hurricane Katrina, decaying infrastructure and the rise of religious fundamentalism as contributors to the decade’s label.

Time is absolutely correct. But another important factor in the U.S. decline is the growing social disconnect that is a developing characteristic of Americans.

The ’00s have ushered in a cold and impersonal level of interaction that underscores modern culture’s increasing lack of decency. Unless Americans take responsibility for their civility, this problem could cause the nation’s decline as a superpower.

The Internet seems to be the main culprit. It is now much easier for people to be foolish.

Many Internet-mediated developments are great. The Web’s proliferation has generated countless benefits, such as instant news updates, easily-accessible information and humorous memes. The Internet was also responsible for higher stock returns in the ’90s, according to Time.

But in the 21st century, even as advancements are made in social media and Web 2.0, the 400 percent worldwide rise in Internet usage has eroded what once were basic social principles.

“Whereas in previous eras, an uncivil exchange might be confined to a room, a building or a public square, today’s media technology means that it is captured, amplified, replayed and distributed – perpetually,” said Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker.

Name-calling, death threats and trolling have existed for a long time, but the Internet is now the platform for these.

Internet anonymity brings out everyone’s inner beast. Just look at the comment section of almost any YouTube video, where hateful and cold-hearted comments lurk.

As etiquette is erased, insensitivity often projects into real life. No matter what sites they visit, individuals should respect the rules of social conduct and be aware that usernames and avatars online are representations of actual people.

By curbing online savagery and re-establishing decency, Internet users can prevent these destructive attitudes from further infecting the off-line world.

This is not an issue of free speech.

“That is one of the mistakes a lot of people make – believing that uncensored speech is the most free, when in fact, managed civil dialogue is actually the freer speech,” said Tim O’Reilly, a book publisher who coined the term “Web 2.0,” to The New York Times. “Free speech is enhanced by civility.”

The government should not censor the Internet. It is up to each individual to put down the masks and get closer to everyone they meet physically and electronically. The Internet requires some manner of personal responsibility.

Americans must improve their civility toward one another to ensure the next decade is better than this one.

Neil Manimala is a junior majoring in biomedical sciences.