“Be excellent to each other.” — Abraham Lincoln (in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure)
If you’re like me, and you’ve been online since the stone-age early-90s days of AOL dialup, you’ve seen more than your share of flame wars. I’m pretty sure the first flame war erupted as soon as the second person logged on to the ARPANET.
“Back in the day”, we all hid behind screen names all the time. Odds were good you actually knew very few people online in real-life (that is to say, your local friends, family, co-workers, etc). I think when I started using AOL, I knew my best friend, her mom, and her aunt.
In the early 90s, the internet was something of an entertainment novelty. In 2013, it is an essential part of daily life. And for the most part, we no longer hide behind screen names, doing much of our online interacting via email and Facebook.
So I find it striking that, for many of us, it seems like people were nicer back when we didn’t know each other. Today’s Facebook is often a minefield of snark, and on Facebook, you DO know who many of these people actually are, and you DO interact with many of them in offline life.
I’m not a fan of this, and I’m far from the first person to notice. One of my local radio stations ran an informal listener survey a few months ago asking people if they thought their Facebook friends were getting nastier, based on a news article one of the hosts had read.
No one’s really sure why, and I’m certainly no expert, but I’ll put forth a theory. I think people seem nastier because it’s becoming increasingly easier to say whatever you want to say whenever you want to say it, and this is causing social filters to break down.
With social media, you can do this in one or two mouse clicks, once you log in to the service. Email is almost as quick, now that many of us have smartphones with the internet in our purses and pockets. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. And it’s all well and good telling Aunt Betty to “lighten up” because she didn’t like that crude joke you posted to your Timeline, but why would you friend her on Facebook if you didn’t care what she thought/felt?
“Back in the day”, when we relied on forums or blogs, when we didn’t have the internet at our fingertips 24/7, you had to actually go find a computer first, which all but eliminated the kind of “shoot from the hip” blasting you see on Facebook. And since everyone else had to go find a computer first, your forum or blog posts wouldn’t be read in near real-time by others.
No, that didn’t mean we never had flame wars. Far from it! But the time lags between users logging in and looking at the blog/forum/whatever did have an effect of dulling much of the immediacy of online arguments we see on social media today. And because people had to choose to follow a blog/forum/whatever, you really didn’t have this phenomena of people you don’t even know swooping in to argue with you because they are a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend.
Beyond that, the immediacy of social media gives it a “let it all hang out” rawness that you rarely saw with blogs, unless someone practically lived on Live Journal. Do we really need to put every stream-of-consciousness blip out there for the whole world to see?
Do we really need to take our friends to task for not wanting to listen to every stream-of-consciousness blip we put out there? Just because you can be nasty and still stay within the Facebook Terms of Service doesn’t mean you should. Those are real people out there. Many of whom you actually see offline.
Why does having a screen between you suddenly remove social convention? Why would you ever say things to someone (or in a certain way to someone) on Facebook or email that you would never use to their face? Words CAN and DO cause real damage. The sticky issue of cyberbullying aside, do you really want to lose a good friend because you called them names on Facebook? Do you really think they shouldn’t pay attention to whatever you do because it was online?
Be excellent to one another. Try to create dialogue instead of pithy snark. Remember why these people are your friends, and treat them the way you would like to be treated. Or you just may find yourself with no one to talk to at all.