So I decided to embark on a little bit of a social experiment today. I posted a picture on my Facebook account of my current post-surgery working from home neck beard. Now to fully understand this, know that I thanks to the wonders of genetics, am totally incapable of growing a full beard. The picture (posted below) is my “Duck Dynasty” beard, it is the best I can do. I will admit to having full on beard envy for those men that do get mistaken for lumberjacks. While my beard will not inspire men the world over to throw away their razors, I personally don’t think it’s horrible and was confident that my facebook friends would say something positive. I expected the odd “shave it off comment”, or even a few “you look like a bum”, but was hopeful for some positivity.
My mistake seemed to lay there, in assuming that on the internet people could be positive or pleasant. What I failed to remember is that is the exception on the internet. The fact that people cannot seem to contain their negativity and seem to derive pleasure from unleashing it on others. Just take a moment and scroll through your social media feed and take a note of how much interaction there is with positive posts vs. negative ones. The ability for people, even without the promise of anonymity, to lash out without considering another’s feelings is staggering.
Now my exact post asked the question “Alright Facebook friends, Neckbeard should it stay or should it go?”. A pretty forward question that for the most part evoked a very straightforward response. While I knew that the response would not be all affirmative, what I didn’t expect were comments like “You look nasty” or “I would not do business with you”. Things like “you look like you have a small animal growing from your adams apple” or suggesting that I look like an Ayatollah. These were the comments that took me entirely off guard and to be honest hurt my feelings. I’m not an overly sensitive person in general, and if you hadn’t guessed it by the fact that I simply have a neck beard, I don’t generally care what others think of me. I’m a gamer, I speak Klingon, I go to Trek conventions, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking of others opinions. I in fact pride myself on the fact that I simply don’t care, however today showed me that there’s limits to that. Today showed me that there’s an innate human desire to be accepted, even if we don’t realize it.
When we post on social media we don’t always realize how what we’re saying could affect someone. The internet has given us the ability to interact with others without actually physically interacting with others. The ability to leave a “drive-by” comment without having to face that person and without fully considering what it would be like if we did. I don’t actually think any of the folks that expressed their opinions are bad people or even that they meant to hurt my feelings or to be mean, but the reality is I was emotionally affected by it. I’ve spent a large part of the day thinking and marinating on exactly what these comments meant to me, and wondering how all of these people couldn’t see that I was looking for some social support, a little encouragement.
For me, and for many others a large part of our social interaction comes online. I can truly say that I have far more “online” friendships than “offline” at this point in my life. I’m a Director of IT with a 3 hour roundtrip commute. I leave my house at 7 in the morning and generally get home after 7 in the evening. I get to spend many nights working, which leaves me in front of the computer, and as such my social life in the past year has led to the development of these online friendships. As such I may be more sensitive than some to online interactions and I acknowledge that. However the sensitivity I have doesn’t negate the insensitivity of others to base human feelings.
I’m not alone in hurt by online interactions. A quick poll of my own twitter followers showed that both women and men, from varied backgrounds have all experienced pain through the web. Most recently and notably Joss Whedon, a hero in the geek and nerd community, decided to leave twitter because of its toxicity. For someone so well recognized and even loved by many in the community to leave entirely was a big moment, and I would only hope that it would shed more light on the issue. Unfortunately, even Joss’ departure was met with vitriol from the community and little meaningful discussion was had.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know what steps can be taken to promote better behavior online. What I’d like to suggest is that we all spend a little bit more time thinking about that next tweet, that next Facebook post, or that next instagram comment. You never know what the person on the other side of the internet is thinking, going through or what they are looking to receive from your interaction. I’d also propose that we each take the time while online to point out behavior that isn’t acceptable, that we police ourselves. The only way that our online community will ever get better is if those of us that care stand up and do something about it. It was Edmund Burke that said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This is true more than ever in the information age. We all need to do our part to not only promote positivity through our own outlets, but to be a force for good when we see negativity occurring. While I don’t know if the woman, who I did not actually even know, that said that I “look nasty” would have at all been affected if someone had questioned her behavior as acceptable, but I like to think that it would have made her stop and consider her actions. The bottom line is this, be nice to people, obey Wheaton’s law and encourage others to do the same, the internet and the world will be a better place for it.