Thursday, October 9, 2008

Community Atonement

One of the great things about Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, is that you don't have to make up the text yourself. Let's face it, none of us remember all the things we did wrong, and even if we did, we mostly don't admit they were wrong.

When I read through the list they give me in the prayerbook, there are some I am pretty sure I've done, like giving bad advice. I give lots of advice, so for sure I have given bad advice, and I need forgiveness for that. I've definitely been stubborn and insensitive and done bad deeds unintentionally. On the other hand, there are those things on the list that I'm pretty sure I didn't do this year, like having sexual relations with a family member.

It was pointed out to me, however, that the text doesn't refer to things that I did, but rather to things that we did. It doesn't say, Lord forgive me. It says, Lord, forgive us. If you've been following this column, it shouldn't be surprising to you to hear that this had a special meaning for me this year, as I reflected on the responsibility we have as members of a community, not just to do the right thing, but to influence others to do the right thing. The text of the prayers makes it starkly clear. We aren't just responsible for our own actions; we are responsible for our actions as a community and for the actions of members of our community.

For most of us, this is something of an annoyance. I have enough trouble keeping myself in line; you want me to watch that troublemaker, too? Unfortunately, the truth is that what others do influences our lives. For example, in most Western societies, people recycle because of social pressure, not because there is any real incentive. In this context, it's obvious that what our neighbor does has influence on our lives, and that our behavior influences theirs.

The same goes for our online behavior. Recently I read an article that one of the mobile operators is now reporting that Google searches for "Facebook" are outnumbering searches for pornography. You may debate whether this is an actual change in behavior; but at any rate it illustrates something about social behavior. Shifts in behavior online happen rapidly, and are immediately measurable. (One of my favorite sites in this area is, and I follow their blog regularly.) You might argue that people no longer have to search for pornography when they are lonely; now they can just search for other people. It sounds pretty good when you put it that way.

Regardless of what it means, online social networks are one of the most obvious places where you can see that our behavior influences others. Just as an example, Jeff Pulver posted that friends don't bite friends, so anyone following him (and he's one of the most influential Facebookers around) probably won't add the Vampires application. Not that it's a real bite or anything, but in that particular circle, that particular behavior has become unacceptable.

The tools available for sharing what you consider moral or amoral behavior have rapidly expanded. People know what you are doing through status messages, what you are reading through shared RSS feeds, and what you do for fun through applications you add to your profile.

More than ever, we are responsible for our influence on our colleagues and friends. Let us resolve to use that influence for the good, so that next year we will have a longer list of things we have influenced others to avoid, not just avoided doing ourselves.

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