Emboldened by the Internet

Two days ago, I sent out (what I thought was) a pretty benign tweet:

Timothy Pate Twitter OITNB

Sure: it’s a criticism of two popular actresses; but they’re actresses in a thriving series that frequently is subjected to reviews both positive and negative. I didn’t think anything of it.

This morning, I opened my Twitter feed to find 15 unread notifications. I’ve got just over 1,100 followers, so 15 unread notifications is not a common occurrence. Here’s what I saw in my notifications window:

Timothy Pate Twitter OITNB

Timothy Pate Twitter OITNB

Timothy Pate Twitter OITNB

Timothy Pate Twitter OITNB

…and many more. You get the picture.

Now, I could be wrong, but I doubt that the humans behind these accounts talk this way to the people with whom they have real-life encounters. Hayley probably doesn’t tell people to shove cats up their asses every time she gets in a dispute. Because in the real world, there are consequences for saying things like that. On the Internet, however, a smoke screen of anonymity shields us—and we feel empowered to say whatever we think will hurt the most.

It’s similar to the sudden power and rage we find that we possess when we get behind the wheel of a car. Interactions with other people on the road don’t come close to reflecting the way that we deal with strangers in-person. The barriers, be they cars or computers, we put between each other make us feel invincible. And they make us feel like other humans are dispensible.

Here’s the thing: attacks like this don’t bother me. I (and my coworkers) had a good laugh about the venom frothing up over a single tweet, and then I went about my day. I don’t feel threatened, so it’s easy for me to forget about it.

But the people on the receiving ends of attacks like this one don’t always feel so safe. Cyber bullying is a real problem—one that has had actual consequences like death threats, invasions of privacy, and even suicide. Even if the shield of the Internet makes you feel disconnected from the results of your actions, you are still capable of inflicting harm that goes beyond a couple words on a screen.

I’m not trying to absolve myself of this particular transgression. Hell, my original tweet was the result of my feeling safe not saying those words to Taylor Schilling’s and Laura Prepon’s faces. What I’m trying to say is that we—all of us—need to work harder at treating the people we meet online like we would treat them if we met them on the street or in class or at a restaurant. None of us lives in a bubble, where our actions just bounce around free of consequence.

Technology has the power to bring us together in ways unimaginable just a few decades ago. Let’s not squander that connectivity on knocking down people we’ve never met.

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