On Bravura, Metal Cocoons, and Connected Kindness: Thoughts on Digital Nastiness – and How to Make it Better

I think a great deal about how the internet is influencing society. I suppose some of this comes from having such a nostalgic turn of mind. I still remember very slow dial-up connections (insert modem snarl here), and even a time before the internet. There is no doubt that the accelerating rate of internet connectivity (and bandwidth) has made the world a very different place to what it was just a decade or three ago

There is much to be said about how the internet is affecting human society, both positively and negatively. There’s the scourge of fake news, bias-reinforcing filter bubbles, comforting echo chambers, and the curse of diminishing privacy. But there is also access to life-enhancing opportunities such as the sharing of information and ideas, the freedom to express oneself, and even social revolutions.

But what I’ve been mulling over most intensely of late is the relationship between the internet and human kindness – on a personal scale. Phishing, hacking, scamming, and the like are more obvious examples, but for most of us these involve faceless, nefarious, geographically-remote trolls. What about our own personal relationships with the people we actually know in analogue, as it were, as expressed on the internet? Why is it that we are often so unkind to the people we know when we are online?

The internet removes the barriers of space and time, and hence allows us to interact with one another socially, as well as professionally like never before. And mostly, this brings out the good in us. We share, we collaborate, we communicate, we support, we upvote, we comment, and we know what’s going on in other people’s lives.

But we can also be quite venomous.

When we are sitting behind a computer screen on social media or composing an email, we do not have the benefit of being able to read the physical response of the person we are ‘talking’ to. Our screens become masks that give us the bravura to say things we might not say in person. We feel empowered to bellyache, snivel, swear, criticize, and to even be downright combative and malicious.

But our screens also shield us from the responses of those we digitally mistreat.

(As an interesting aside, we behave in very similar ways when we drive. Sitting behind our windscreens, safely ensconced in a protective cocoon of metal, we feel like we can behave in ways we would never behave in person.)

In short, we can be uncharacteristically cruel online to the people we are acquainted with in real life. Far more so, I would venture, than we would be in person.

Granted, much of this has to do with the fact that digital communications do not carry tone well. I have learnt the hard way that what I mean to say online is not always how it is read. While I may have meant something to be funny or quirky or tongue-in-cheek, it is often not taken this way, for whatever reason.

The accelerating pace of life also means that we spend less time composing messages and replies than we should, and often don’t take the time to read messages properly before jumping to conclusions. Also, we often get so caught up in the frenetic rush to get things done that we do not take enough time to communicate decently with one another.

Perhaps another possible reason why we feel confident that we can be rude to one another in emails and on social media is the fact that we feel we can now have our say with so many things more generally. We can review products, videos, restaurants, holiday destinations, and almost everything else. We can send sternly worded emails of complaint. We don’t have to ask to see the manager anymore, we can write a stinking review, compose a derisive tweet, or give a two star rating.

Confrontation no longer requires courage or diplomacy, it just needs an internet connection.

And then we transfer this mindset to our communications with people we know. It’s like we forget that these are real people who share an aspect of our lives. Like they are just another annoyance. It’s like we forget that there are living, breathing human beings on the receiving end of these messages.

So what’s the solution?

For me, it’s pretty easy, and it’s something I am going to try to stick to from now on:

It’s about time.

We need to take more time to ensure that our online communications are polite, professional, and kind.

We need to take the time to read and understand the messages and comments we receive, to think about what we are saying, and even to forgive others when they communicate in ways we know is not characteristic of them. And if we are offended, we need to take some time to let things simmer down before we jump to our keyboards. Perhaps sometimes it’s best not to reply at all.

By and large, the internet is changing the world for the better. Why should it be any different in our little corner of it?

It just takes a little time.

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