A reminder to be kind


Sometimes I wonder what if, one day, we were each held accountable for what we put up online? What if, one day, the veil was lifted from all those anonymous comments, aliases and fake email addresses? What if, one day, our IP addresses were printed beside our IC numbers on our identity cards? What if, one day, at the click of a button I could know everything there is to know about you – from where you live, to who you are dating, to what you do for a living, to the last thing you bought online or website you visited (heaven forbid you were surfing porn) or comment you posted? What if, one day, employers required a full background check on all your previous internet activity? What if, one day, everything you’ve ever done online is printed in CV format when you pass away? (for all future generations of offspring, and offspring’s offspring, and so on to read and remember you by)

Is that what it would take for people to be kind online?

You’re probably wondering what sparked this. Well, Xiaxue recently announced that she’s pregnant (if you haven’t heard the news, I assume you aren’t connected to any form of social media at all), and along with that (happy) announcement came a barrage of comments on all sorts of forums/sites/social networks. It made me, well, angry, to say the very least.

Wishing ill on an unborn child? Really? People stoop that low these days? What is wrong with the world we live in? What happened to the world where evil thoughts were left unspoken? This kid hasn't yet been born yet you're wishing upon him/her a whole life, an entire world of unhappiness?

W H Y ?

(note: I have no particular affinity for Xiaxue, at times I find her tweets to be quite amusing, but that's about it)

While these thoughts were circling (kind of like vultures!) in my head, Elizabeth Bernstein (who regularly contributes to the WSJ) wrote a piece titled “Why We Are So Rude Online.” (Timely! But perhaps it caught my eye because I was already on the topic myself)

“We’re less inhibited online because we don’t have to see the reaction of the person we’re addressing” … “we tend to dehumanize each other because it’s harder to focus on what we have in common”

Such a familiar rhetoric – online interaction employs an age old tactic so common in warfare throughout human history. Teach them how to make the other side seem less human so young men will willingly kill other young men who would otherwise be so similar to themselves.

Being anonymous makes you seem invisible. It makes you feel invincible. It makes you feel you're free of all the societal constraints that keep all hell from breaking lose in polite society.

I suppose the world seems a lot smaller when you’re facing an 11 inch screen. I suppose it’s easy to forget that behind that 11inch screen, there’s about 1.858 billion people watching you. There’s a false sense of comfort created when it feels like it’s just you, alone in your room, with a laptop and a fake name.

[Amy Cheong probably experienced this false sense of comfort when she decided to lambast all of Singapore's Malay community on her personal facebook page - she probably just forgot that behind that seemingly benign blue and white homepage lay thousands of viewers to whom she had unwittingly broadcast her ugliest inner most thoughts]

But what if the internet isn’t as anonymous as you think it is?

You know that device you’re reading this off? Well, it’s registered to you. Yes, you! Full name, paid for with your credit card, plugged into a socket or using the wifi connection to your home – which I presume is also under your name. Everytime you do anything online, an IP address (tagged directly to you!) is recorded. Like a thumbprint.

[This is also how attorneys can obtain your identity if they ever needed to come after you for something nasty you’ve done online – say, defamation]

You know what else Elizabeth Bernstein's article says? It says that research has shown that people who are more vicious online tend to be losers in real life.

Okay, it doesn't say that exactly, that's my unscientific summary of the research conducted by Columbia University. If you're too lazy to read the full article, here's a very liberally summarized version of it:

We tend to lash out online because we have an inflated sense of self. Through facebook, we present an enhanced version of ourselves, and we receive encouragement in the form of "likes" which further boosts our self esteem. Because we think we are better than others, we become more inclined to lash out strongly against those who do not share our opinion (thereby exhibiting poor self control).

The study also found that these same people (who spent more time online and who had a high percentage of close ties in their facebook network) were more likely to engage in binge eating and to have a greater body mass index, as well as to have more credit-card debt and a lower credit score...

Essentially Columbia's research shows that trolls are a bunch of people who don't go out, binge eat alone at home, and spend their days online shopping (this explains the credit card debt!) and flaming others on various platforms.

I do not want to fall into this category of people. Do you? 

You know what else the internet does? It remembers.

The internet never forgets, think about it – I still have access to every comment posted on every platform I’ve ever been on (website wise) since I started blogging at 17… What if one day I could link it all up and expose the internet trolls? It’d be a gold mine! An absolute field day! Someone could even create a facebook app to tag you to old comments which you own. Public shaming. Didn't Xiaxue prove not too long ago that there is a great deal of power in public shaming? I mean, we behave ourselves in public because we're afraid of being named and shame right? Well, shaming can, and does, exist online too - and the potential public is amplified to about 1.858 billion people. 

I know I sound like I’m on some kind of crazy crusade, but really, I implore you to think about the future and all that it could possibly hold. It’s not so implausible that our entire internet history might one day be made as easily available as an online CV on Linkedin. Is that a history you’d be proud of? Or will it make you want to dig a hole and bury yourself for all eternity?

The internet, blogs, platforms, social media and the like, are just a new form of communication. 

This is your face to the 1.858 billion people who make up that world.

Would you openly wish ill on someone else’s unborn child in public, out loud? Would you tell a young girl the gritty details of her parents’ divorce with a clear conscience? Would you put someone else’s career in jeopardy by slamming them online, if the same could be done to you without your internet-cloak-of-“anonymity”?

This is preachy, I’ll admit it, but the next time you let your fingers do the talking, it might be worthwhile to consider whether you’d want your future unborn children to be privy to the fact that you were the one who wrote that particularly nasty piece.

Don't get me wrong, the internet wasn't created to track and limit your movement. It was created as a tool to share the wonders of the world (cheesy, I know). Like any other tool, we can use it to build the world (and the people in it) up or we can use it to bring everything down. At the end of the day, we’re still the ones behind the wheel (or mouse) – you can choose whether you want to be responsible or reckless.

Credit where it's due: Image via Google Images, Elizabeth Bernstein's original article here, and Xiaxue's homepage here.