Friday, March 1, 2013

Perceived Anonymity and Invincibility on the Internet

What would we do without the Internet?  All of those wonderful games we play on our phones?  Emailing and texting and Skyping?  The ability to Google anything and everything?  I remember when I was a teenager and wanted to know something, I’d either ask my dad (who seemingly knew EVERYTHING) or I’d go dig in the back of my closet for twenty-year-old encyclopedias that still listed North and South Vietnam as two separate countries.  It’s amazing I was able to write coherent and relevant term papers in high school!

Now people can literally spend all day trolling the Internet—especially social media and news sites.  I think humans, as a function of their existence, thrive on vicarious drama, and there’s no better place to find drama than Facebook.

I have one friend on Facebook who is constantly posting quarrels he’s having with his girlfriend.  He doesn’t even tag her in the posts.  He just says things like, “Oh, I see how it is.  Wait until the tides turn, you *#$%*#.”  He'll even comment on his post with another crass remark, almost as if he's talking to himself like a lunatic.  No joke!  People have commented under his posts saying he should keep his pre-marital strife out of the public realm, but that does not deter him.

Today I was reading a post by the local radio DJ about a teenager with severe scoliosis.  Sadly I couldn’t write this blog entry sooner, but her family was collecting donations at Sam’s Club in Altoona from like 10 AM to 6 PM.  It was a great post to share on the part of the DJ, something honorable and thoughtful, and the family was hoping that the publicity would raise $7000 for her treatment.  And then I read the comments…

The post didn’t actually mention the girl’s name, and so someone asked for it, saying she’d like to know who she’s donating money to before she drives over.  People started bashing her, saying the name of the girl or family shouldn’t matter, and she started bashing back, saying she donates all the time and attends church benefits and blah blah blah.  I think I read maybe ten posts of this lady arguing with two or three others, calling each other names and whatnot.  Absolutely ridiculous.

This was a great post to benefit this poor girl.  And people were fighting about it.  What is wrong with people?

Well, I might be able to provide a partial answer to that.  The Internet has given us all a sense of perceived anonymity and invincibility.  We think that we can type away our thoughts and feelings, no matter how crass or immoral, and that nobody can stop us.  Some might have a devil-may-care attitude about life in general.  Others might be under the impression that they don’t have many actual friends that they routinely congress with, and so even if they have hundreds or thousands of followers or friends on their social media sites, none of them are paying any attention to what they post.  Wrong.

My case in point, another social media friend of mine, a person who has always seemed to struggle with his self-esteem, shared an extremely vulgar picture, and in the comments an aunt or other type of authority figure stated that she should wash his mouth out with soap.  His response: “I’m 27 years-old now.  I can say what I want.”

I wasn’t at all surprised to see his vulgar post, because it was par for the course with him, but I was surprised by his comment.  I really believe that people seem to think they can say what they want on the Internet with no repercussions.  And that’s a bit scary to me that some of us have devolved to that point.

Any human resource manager or boss looking to hire someone and worth his/her salary is going to delve through social media sites before making an offer.  It’s the same idea as researching a product on the Internet before purchasing it.  You want to know what you’re getting before you commit.  And so yeah, I guess people can say whatever they want, but I certainly hope they won’t ever have the need to hunt for a job in the future.  And forget about running for a public office!

What really troubles me is that people would not say these types of things in actual public.  Like this lady asking for the name of this poor girl, if she just happened to be shopping at Sam’s Club and saw her asking for donations, she’d probably drop a few cents in the jar and be on her way.  She’s not going to walk up to the disabled girl and ask her name or interrogate her.  And she’s not going to get in a public argument with someone else over something so trivial.  People shy away from arguments in public, because it creates a scene, and natural human behavior forces most people to avoid scenes.

But not on the Internet, yet it is still a public setting.  It’s actually possibly even more public than a physical location, because rather than having maybe twenty people gape at your pointless and insensitive argument, you now have hundreds if not thousands—especially when you do it in the comments under the post of a local celebrity.  Are some people just too dense to understand that?

The Internet can be a very scary thing at times, and I’m not talking about malware or hackers or NSFW content popping up on the screen while trying to show your boss an important document.  I’m talking about the fact that people have this perceived anonymity and invincibility when using it.  I’m sorry people, but that’s just not the case.  Unless you are using some fake name to comment (which is an entirely different issue possibly requiring some psychological therapy in most cases), you aren’t anonymous.  And when you say things that make you look like a donkey butt, don’t be surprised when you run into a cousin or high school friend or fellow churchgoer and the person gives you the cold shoulder.  Because you are not invincible either.

I’ve said my peace.

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