Please step forward!

I continue to be baffled by the disconnect between many people’s online personas and their real life selves. Sometimes it feels like the internet opened Pandora’s Box and all this creepy, deranged sh*t started flying out. I saw a TV news teaser yesterday saying the Supreme Court had ruled on whether making a death threat via social media was prosecutable. “The answer may surprise you” said the announcer. I didn’t care enough about the answer to either hang around and learn it, or to Google it now. I guess if I ever get online death threats, I’ll be motivated to look into it. But yeesh, what is wrong with people?!?

You know, it was tricky enough trying to figure out who people were before. Now there’s this whole other layer, this whole other character sometimes, to be studied or understood. There was an old game show where 3 people (I think it was 3) pretended to be a particular individual and the contestant had to guess, based on asking questions, which one was the real person. At the end the host would say something like, “Would the real such-and-so please step forward!” That’s how the internet feels: Would the real person please step forward?

I know somebody, a grown person, who deliberately – in my estimation – makes a lot of trouble online. This person reported that on meeting them in real life, other people were pleasantly surprised, having previously thought the instigator was a “real asshole.” See, I think the “instigator” is pleased by having, or seeming to have, a dual persona. The “why” of it puzzles me yet. Do people – because I know this scenario isn’t an isolated or uncommon one – do this to keep others off-balance? To trot out their uglier, angrier selves online where there’s less risk? After all, when you do or say something in person, consequences, rebuttals and reprisals can be immediate. You’re exposed. Not nearly so online.

And – Is the internet an outlet for people who have trouble getting attention in real life? Who are pissed off and can force people online to pay attention to them? If only by being outrageous or controversial? To say what they otherwise daren’t?

So the question is: who’s the bonafide person? The one spouting off online, whether in emails or on social forums, or the one walking around in the real world? Should a person be measured by their propensity for online ugliness?

I’ve had people say things to me online who then tried to minimize or sidestep their comments when faced with me in real life. Who seemed to have a hard time looking me in the eye even, when questioned or challenged about what they said/wrote. I almost got the feeling I was breaking an unspoken contract: what happens online stays online. To this I say “Pah!” Where is that written? I never agreed to it.

Here’s the thing. Of their snotty, rude, or vicious things said online, somehow people think it doesn’t count. And you know what this totally reminds me of? What people say about being drunk. How they dismiss – or minimize – their words and actions while sh*t-faced. When confronted with what they said by the light of day, so to speak, they shirk and mitigate: “I didn’t mean any of that. I was drunk.” You, the one who witnessed or was on the receiving end of their drunken exploits and diatribes, aren’t supposed to count it. But I did. I do. And it’s the same here. What’s said online matters. It counts.

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36 thoughts on “Please step forward!

  1. Jim Link

    Oh yes, what is “said” online certainly does count, Colette! I agree completely. To claim it doesn’t matter is the same sophistry that using racial slurs, belittling nicknames and teasing adjectives is. Calling a grown man “boy”, or anyone “fatso” IS hurtful. But online users have the shield of anonymity, alas.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Right, or claiming people are just too sensitive or politically correct when they object. It’s weird how people feel anonymous or at least shielded online even when they can’t stay that way indefinitely – whether they use their name or not.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Excellent point Christine. People will say “you’re overreacting,” “I didn’t mean it,” and the crowd favorite, “Why is everybody so sensitive?! The politically correct police are ruining everything!” When in fact they’ve just shown their colors.

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  2. daveb42

    I live in an area where people routinely get drunk with best friends or family members, get into a fight, and kill each other. What you do and say while drunk does matter—but I guess it’s a self-limiting problem.

    I’ve noticed for years that people will say things online that they would never say to your face. But, I would argue against the idea that they just don’t think or let themselves go while online. I think it is the other way around. The persona someone reveals online is who they are. The one they reveal in person is softened and toned down to avoid unpleasant confrontation.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Oh I agree – that was my thought too. I believe it’s very conscious: “Here I am safe behind my keyboard. I’m going to make up for lost time. And stick it to people.” (I bet the drunk people claim they didn’t mean to shoot their Uncle.)

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      I know! People are confusing me on a new level. (You know what would really mess with my head? These online communities/games where people have avatars and entire characters and fantasy lives where they spend as much or more time as their real lives.)

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  3. John Callaghan

    I play a fair bit of online video games and I have a headset with a microphone and everyone can chat while they play. This is great most of the time but on occasion you will come across a person so ugly and nasty it defies description. I think this this is the person’s true nature coming out in full bloom under the protection of anonymity.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Huh, I just answered another comment and mentioned how much those games would mess with my head! I tend to agree, John, that their is something essential revealed when someone acts like that. It strikes me as so cowardly.

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  4. Anxious Mom

    I know someone exactly like that, who prides himself on being an Internet a**hole (the type that would tell someone to go kill himself) but fairly pleasant in real life. I don’t have any use for him. It’s one thing for the internet to be an outlet for a introvert (like me) or whatever, but that’s just way too much.

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  5. jan

    The problem with comments made online is that you can’t hear the inflection in someone’s voice or the expression on their face. I’ve got a rather snarky sense of humor that can get me into trouble online so I’m constantly reminding myself that people don’t know when I’m joking and that I should always err on the side of caution.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Jan I have taught myself exactly that. I’m a smart mouth and can be quite irreverent, but I keep it mostly in person (or on blog posts), and don’t dish it so freely in one on one online interactions. Years ago I read/heard that sarcasm doesn’t translate well online and I took it to heart, realizing too that I can’t always tell if somebody else is trying to be funny or trying to be a jackass!

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  6. Andrew Davis

    and once again, the issue of empathy may be raised. People are quick to defend or minimize their comments without conscious regard that it was a person you were attacking. A person with feelings. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t mean it. It matters if the person you were talking, writing you was offended. That disconnect further proves the point how detached we become on the internet. Less human. Thanks for stirring the pot, Colette!

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      I think if people could magically see the effect of their online words, that would pull many of them up short. It wouldn’t stop the hardcore narcissists and sociopaths but you can’t have everything! So much subtly and nuance is lost online. I strive to be clear & coherent and still people miss my point sometimes. I have learned to be quite careful because I see how frequently people misunderstand each other, how quickly vitriol is exchanged. Thanks for commenting!

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      1. Andrew Davis

        What troubles me is the expedience of electronic messages. My brain works faster than my fingers. I am forgetting key words in sentences all the time. I should be more careful. Coincidentally, it is just the opposite for the vitriol-fueled.

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        1. writerinsoul Post author

          My tablet, courtesy of its “corrections” would prefer not that I come off hostile but rather nonsensical. Sometimes I have a moment of almost-horror at the gobbledygook I’ve just sent.

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  7. vanbytheriver

    “Is the internet an outlet for people who have trouble getting attention in real life?” Yes. Yes it is. Or at least it can be. That is a huge part of the problem, and why there may be so much variance in the 2 personas. Anonymity is a warm blanket.

    But words hurt. Spikes in teen suicides have sadly reflected that. Some online bullies have been prosecuted. It’s a start.

    I like your drinking analogy. I have always believed that words/actions have seeds that were planted long before that first drink. Being sober just provides a better edit feature.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Even as you repeat my words back to me, Van, I realize there’s an upside too, namely that people who are insecure or not as deft with social skills, get to join in more. That must be good, to a point. But too many, of the nasty sort, just find an outlet for their hostility & scary ideas.

      I’ve said it before but I’m SO glad I knew a pre-internet world. It helps perspective. I know I’d be overwhelmed as a modern teen or young adult living my life online.

      Yes, I think the sober/edit mechanism is a good thing! There are definitely people who drink I want to steer clear of – I have an idea what they may say and I’d rather not afford them the opportunity…

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      1. vanbytheriver

        Agreed on the perspective. Not sure how open I’d have been as a teen on here…probably not very. It took me decades to come to not caring about what other people think. I might have withered away…alone in my room ! (or with 2 or 3 sisters in my room…I was never alone.)

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        1. writerinsoul Post author

          Haha! I was never alone until enough older siblings moved out of the house. I tip my hat to you for not caring what people think. I am well down that road but I’m still affected . The teen me would NOT have had a blog like this either.

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            1. writerinsoul Post author

              Although…. I do remember you commenting on my blog’s candor not long ago, Van. I think you (and by that I mean “people”) can expose yourself only to the extent you don’t fear what other people think. I wouldn’t have done a blog like this even 5 years ago. I hope I always care what people think but only on stuff that I should.

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            2. vanbytheriver

              I think you have the right idea there, Colette. Things changed dramatically for me in 2012 when I faced my own mortality; the loss of my youngest sister followed by a possible cancer diagnosis. There was a lot that was waiting to come out of me…and I figured…what am I waiting for ?? The anonymity was crucial. I was pretty sure no one in my non-blogging life would be reading. That opened the door a bit wider. Have a great weekend. πŸ’•

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            3. writerinsoul Post author

              Thanks for sharing this, Van. I have a rough idea of your life chronology in my head – I was just thinking about it yesterday to see if I had it right What you say so mirrors my very first post… “What am I waiting for?” Seriously, that’s the title. I totally understand weighing life’s weightiest problems (your own morality, deaths, illness) against “writing a blog.” Puts it in perspective and doesn’t seem so daunting or scary. Although I’ve not faced my own mortality as you have, I simply wasn’t going to be dead without having written. I imagine you relate.

              On a lighter note, I always think those little hearts you do are warm and sweet (although I have no idea how you do them!)

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  8. battlewagon13

    Spot on with your commentary. I follow lots of musicians and sports figures on Twitter and the like, and am constantly amazed by the things people say to them. Are there really that many assholes in the world? I’d like to think no, but I’m starting to think yes.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Thank you, Tim! I only follow one, Shaun White, and I too have been appalled by what Joe Schmuck Nobodys are willing to say to him. I stopped reading comments on his posts because people were so ugly and hateful. He’s a skate and snow boarder, fer cryin’ out loud! I wish I didn’t agree with you but if the internet gives people an opportunity to show their “true selves,” that’s scary for all of us. Then again, I come on over to WordPress and find a lot of decent people. But I see it as a small pocket.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      I wrote the piece a year ago, and can see (now) how it might seem like a few people. Mainly I’m intrigued by how so many people have dual personas, online and in person, and who should be considered the “real” one.

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