COLUMN: Internet anonymity tough on feelings

The world needs more love.

That’s the simplest and most straightforward answer I can find to a problem that’s been growing lately.

It’s an issue that continues to crop up in conversation in multiple aspects of my life and I really feel strongly about finding a solution.

A solution to the problem that is negativity.

Let me backtrack a bit and explain this in a non-new wavy, hippy-dippy manner.

Out for lunch this week with a friend, she shared a discussion she had on Facebook that quickly went south – she disagreed with a statement, and the person who made it was offended and lashed out, turning the discussion into a personal attack on her character. She was unsettled, and wanted some advice from someone – me – who dealt with this type of thing all the time.

The Internet, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter make it easy to lash out at another human being wearing the mask of anonymity. Looking at a computer screen, you don’t see the pain inflicted by your words. But they hurt just the same.

I said in previous columns that I have a thick skin, that nothing really bothers me anymore. I realize that’s not true; people will get under my skin.

While the general consensus is to not acknowledge trolls (people who intend to inflict hurt anonymously online), it’s sad to think that our society has simply accepted that this behaviour exists with no way to curtail it.

Almost nine years ago, I was a young, junior reporter trying to do the best job I could in a new city and a new newsroom. I called a local company up about a story, and the gentleman who answered promptly told me that he saw no point in talking to me because I would simply distort his words. I thanked him and hung up.

Unnerved, I shared this story with my more experienced colleagues. One of them said to me, “and you took it, didn’t you?”

I nodded. I hadn’t defended myself. I’d never talked to this man before and if he had an issue with media, it wasn’t to do with me.

So I made a pact with myself to stand up for my character. If you impugn my work or that of my colleagues I will call you on it – I will demand specific instances where I’ve wronged you and how.

Those with legitimate issues with my work – I don’t pretend to be perfect, I make mistakes – are able to do that and we have a discussion resulting in a stronger working relationship. Those who don’t simply crawl back to their dark place.

Somewhere along the way, we lost the ability to disagree with an idea. Instead, we attack the person. We don’t say, “I think your idea is without merit;” we say, “I think you are stupid.” It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.

With caring, kindness and empathy in our hearts, we recognize the thinking, feeling soul in each person that doesn’t end when we disagree.

Social media is an amazing invention. We are connected like never before, able to reach people previously unreachable and I fear we are squandering this platform.

As many people log on, many more are logging off. People who were once early proponents of Facebooking and Tweeting are now putting up barriers, choosing to turn off the computer rather than deal with a continuous stream of vitriol from fans and followers.

Sarcasm is often confused with wit; belittling with satire and parody. People might not understand the words they use online could be construed opposite from what they were intended, delivered without the aid of body language and facial expression to send the signal that hurt has been felt.


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