The introduction of Facebook happened late in my college career. My alma mater actually encouraged it as a way to connect with other students. By the third week of use it was apparent this wasn’t just another online messaging system like AIM or ICQ. It was a social revolution in the form of a powerful and convenient platform with incredible potential.
The ability to connect with people without geographic limitations wasn’t a new concept. I was already using message boards with direct message capability. That was all the online networking I needed. If I was interested in something, I would seek out the top message board and sign up. I did that a lot and probably have a plethora of old accounts on boards relating to anything from paintball to blues guitar.
Whether or not this period of time was a bright or dark spot in our digital communication history is debatable. For me, the connection was great. I’ve always been a passionate hobbyist. I would seek out and surround myself with content pertaining to whatever it was that held my attention at the time. Message boards were the perfect way to do that. They were an endless source of helpful tidbits, experience sharing, and fresh conversation.
Plus, they had the appeal of anonymity. You were whatever you said you were. Perception was reality. Making a connection with someone required trust. The deepness of the connection depending on the level of trust invested. And even if you invested very little trust, it didn’t matter, you probably weren’t meeting that person in real life anyway. And that was okay. It was a relationship built on fantasy to begin with. As long as both parties were getting what they wanted out of the relationship, it was all good.
The problem with all of this is that fantasy seldom leads to satisfaction. People want other people to be real. They want their connections with other people to be real. No one wants to hear what they feel for someone is fake. Fake seldom ever has a positive connotation. This is the danger of anonymity and it didn’t start with message boards.
I used to chat in chat rooms. This may make some of you laugh but modern day social platforms like Discord and Slack aren’t any different. You can be more selective with these engines but the concept is still the same. You find and join or are invited to a server, you start sharing opinions and experiences, and you eventually connect with people who seem to be like you. You build trust in time and will eventually want to meet that person.
Enter the identity age. Avatars and handles have now been relegated to gaming, where anonymity is still favored (unless you are a content creator and stream). Our lives are out there otherwise. We still show the self we wish to show but not to the degree we would have in the age of anonymity. One would assume this blending of real self and online self would be a good thing, and it is to some extent, but it’s had unforeseen consequences in online social communities. The most dangerous — a lack of consequence.
People soon realized they could be themselves and treat other people like garbage as long as they operated within the rules of the social platform they are on and whatever social group they are in. This particular type of person can act however they want with little consequence, operating under the assumption the people they prey on know little about them and will probably never meet them in real life. And since most people clear their social feeds of anyone that thinks differently than they do, they are supported in their opinions. Their behavior is rewarded, they are filled with a false sense of purpose, and it leaks into their daily lives.
In other words, a toxic person online is now a toxic person in reality, emboldened by an inflated ego and a few Likes. And if they are called out or confronted for treating people poorly, they error on the side of “well I didn’t mean it that way” or “you misunderstood my tone”. If this is you, you’re doing it wrong.
Online hunting and fishing communities are filled with these people, which is ironic to me because these communities are comprised of smaller, regional, or even local communities where the odds of physically meeting someone you’ve attacked or irritated online is quite high. It is inevitable in the traditional communities unless you never leave your house. And some clearly don’t.
We haven’t handled the online mashup well as a species. We have the ability to connect with other people anywhere in the world at any time and we spend it spewing opinions into the aether in search of virtual justification and a temporary dopamine high.
It’s time to be better. It’s time to practice what we preach. It’s time to be the person we say we are. It’s time to take the Golden Rule out of its box, polish it, and put it back on the desk where we can’t ignore it. It’s time to take ourselves less seriously and laugh more often. It’s time to reconnect with what’s important — each other.
Let’s make 2022 less embarrassing than 2021.