A recent incident of accidentally offending someone made me think about
one of the primary challenges of social media.
the realm of anonymity
How many times have you heard something to the effect of "You don't
know who you're dealing with on the internet"? If you've been on the
internet for as long as I have, which is a really
long time, then
probably more than enough by now. It's even worse, if like me, you're
also active on the internet, especially on social media. It's one of
those well-known-but-easily-ignored facts of life that it would do us
all well to keep in mind. Usually, when someone brings it up, you know
what's coming next, someone's been catfished!
not where I'm going with this.
You see, there's another side to this popular adage that often gets
overlooked. You really
don't know who you're dealing with on
the internet, and that also means you don't know what they're going
through. That random person you flippantly insulted? They're could have
just had a bad day at work or at school, where they'd been chewed up,
spit out, and chewed up all over again. That celebrity you just
on, they may have been went in on
by 5000 people
before you. That... okay, okay. We all get it.
this trope. Or at least, we should, and it would do us well if we
respected that. I know I try to do so, even though I'm not nearly
claiming to be perfect at it. Not nearly.
it cuts both ways
Allow me to introduce you to the other side of the equation.
In our largely anonymous interactions on social media, we often
temporarily give up a critical piece of our human machinery:
the ability to empathize.
The scenarios I laid out above cover
the most common way in which this sacrifice of empathy plays out, but it
really doesn't end there. You see, it isn't just those who may happen to
be on the receiving end of an offense who are denied empathy, but also
those who may advertently or inadvertently inflict it.
Take for instance, what inspired me to write this.
For multiple reasons, including the fact that we both deleted our
tweets, but also because of my ground rules for this site, I will not
be including screenshots. You will just have to trust that I'm not
embellishing the story, and that's up to you, the reader, whether you
trust me to be honest about what happened or not. So... here we go:
it cuts both ways - continued
Are you seeing what I'm seeing here?
I doubt it, so let me try to lay it out.
I approached the tweet with assumptions of my own, but following the
idea that we don't know who we're dealing with or what they are dealing
with, I decided to check those assumptions and deal with this issue
on a neutral basis. I laid out my position on the matter and why I held
that view, without in anyway denigrating the other person or their view.
That was met with some clear assumptions from the jump:
- I don't have any children and haven't lost any. This is true.
- That I'm insensitive. This is not true.
- That I cannot see the other person's perspective. This is not true.
To some observers, I may seem like the one without empathy, and I would
say that they are entitled to their opinion. However, looking at this
through another lens, exposes the other way in which this internet knife
can cut. Not only do we reserve empathy from those who may be hurt by our
actions, but we reserve empathy from those who we assume mean us harm.
The most common way this plays out, is when we engage with someone we
In this instance, even my apology was taken as an offensive move.
Stop and consider that for a moment - and no - I don't say this for
Someone apologizes to you, and you blow them off.
Would this be likely to happen outside of the internet and social media?
What is it about this arena that causes us to shut down ourselves so
much, that we think the worst of others, even when they make it clear
that they mean us no harm? Why are we so nasty to each other, that even
if someone reaches out to make ammends, we default to furthering the
chasm that was opened in the first place?
What will it take for us to wield this knife in a better way?
I don't expect anything to change, but a man can dream. I care
enough about total strangers to hope that at least one person gets it.
Maybe that's a silly idea. Maybe not.
After all, this is
it's a knife that cuts both ways.