A time and a half ago, a valuable and much-needed title for a book would have been, How not to be a jerk. This hasn’t changed. Only now, a more relevant title for the same book would probably be, How not to be a jerk online. The Internet is used for everything from buying and selling to waging outright war on social media and observing what’s been termed netiquette is something everyone needs to do.
Protected by a certain measure of anonymity, people tend to really go the entire nine yards when it comes to voicing an opinion online. Online rudeness has its roots in the you can’t see me, the you don’t actually know me, and can’t really identify me aspects of the Internet. The age-old question begs and remains the true measure of sound morality: if you could steal from a bank, knowing with absolute certainty that you will never be caught, would you?
The fact is, we’re all a little bit creepy. Who hasn’t stalked an ex-partner’s Facebook or Twitter profiles, hoping that the person in question is now just a little bit worse off than before? Or, more likely, trying to suss out the competition posed by a new romantic partner.
However, there’s a difference between a bit of digital stalking and going full on rude rogue on someone else simply because you can and you’re able to hide your true identity. It’s the very opportunity to be physically untouchable that seems to catapult us full on into the abyss of mental disconnection.
A Warped Time-Line
Another enabling factor fuelling the culture of being an online jerk is the fact that there are no rules governing the time continuum of online interaction. In other words, there’s no real need to interact in real time. A conversation with a fellow ether-dweller could very well span anything from minutes to months, even years.
Users are in effect able to leave a comment and leave the page shortly after. This makes for a kind of emotional hit-and-run scenario, where there need not be any mental or emotional consequences for the person leaving the comment.
This allows for everything from harsher and more unforgiving opinions, to extreme and unsavoury language being used.
A Reality Check
We are creatures given to flights of imagination. When interacting online, many of the conventional ways of social interaction disappear. There is no eye contact, no interpretation of body language, and no interpretation of meaning from tone, voice or physical demeanour. As such, we often have absolutely no idea of what the person on the other end of a conversation even looks like. We may end up being rude to someone trying to solve a problem for us at a casino customer support centre, or insult the person trying to assist with an online banking query, simply because we can’t see them and we feel they are not helping us fast enough.
This heard-but-not-seen factor is amplified by the fact that most images of people navigating the pages of social media have been altered and improved to such an extent that these are no longer a true representation of what the person actually looks like in person. Armed with this information in the sub-conscious, it becomes increasingly easier to distance the image from the actual person.
In short, it’s easy to forget that there is a real, actual, person on the other end of the digital divide.
Safety In Not Knowing
People are in general very reluctant to voice honest opinions when in the company of figures of authority, and especially in cases where there may be consequences following the voicing of certain opinions. When interacting online, it’s not possible to determine beyond the shadow of a doubt whether it’s a pre-schooler or a CEO on the other end of the conversation thread. Anonymity in many ways evens the playing field, but in many more ways, can turn any conversation into a playground-bully experience.
The trick is to always remember that there is a real person on the other end, with a life and life-experiences and real emotions of their own.
Being a jerk simply because you can really just isn’t cool.