Quiz: A new restaurant comes to town. You eat there the first or second day they are open. What do you do?
A) Eat your meal and go home.
B) Eat your meal, go home, then discuss the experience with your family.
C) Eat your meal, go home, immediately give the restaurant 2 stars and a scathing review on their Facebook page, citing such “transgressions” as no one to greet you, lettuce issues, servers who didn’t seem to know where to bring food, or napkins not in the right place.
In a civil world answer B would be the correct answer, but in this new Culture of Mean answer C is becoming more and more common (and, incidentally, happened to a restaurant in Jasper last month). While those claims in answer C may very well be true, the impact of such a public bashing does a lot of things – it puts a new restaurant in a guilty-until-proven-innocent mode. Not only do they have to work out the kinks of their first week in business, right out of the gate they’re up against a low online rating (which people no doubt pay attention to and base restaurant choices on).
These days this kind of unfair and cruel online behavior is more the rule than the exception in social forums like Twitter, Facebook, and in chat rooms like Reddit. We’ve all got “that Facebook friend” whose feed is a stream of soapbox rants and negativity, but things can get much more serious than political rants.
Take the unfortunate events with a high school production of “Hunchback of Notre Dame” as a prime example of this new Culture of Mean. According to the NY Times, a white teenager was recently cast in the lead role of Esmeralda, a 15th-century Romanian woman, and a young student activist objected. Ithaca High School eventually cancelled the play because of student pushback, then “an online mob targeted the town with threats and racial epithets. Students received pictures of themselves with swastikas plastered on their faces.”
There’s also the relentless and widespread cyberbullying that has led to teen suicides, and the rampant sexting culture in our schools.
In what world is it okay to send students death threats? Or for students to be so nasty and disrespectful to each other that they want to take their own life? Why do people act so differently online than they do when they’re face-to-face?
In a Psychology Today article, Liraz Margalit, Ph.D calls online interaction “unsynchronized communication.” She says, “the interaction need not be coordinated because the behavior is not directed by the other person’s feedback. People in online interactions are much more casual because they do not have to be attentive to each other’s signals. Verbal and symbolic feedback is not immediate, so there is no need to be constantly aware of the other person's responses.”
Translation: we can be as mean as we want online because we don’t have to see first-hand how it impacts other people.
Margalit goes on to discuss this virtual world with language that conjures up images of the holodeck on Star Trek, a world where, “When playing a computer war game, for example, we can experience excitement, frustration and tension, but we can never be injured.” She says interactions online make social media users “feel connected without the difficulties and complexities involved in face-to-face interactions.”
People are cruel online for all kinds of reasons – it’s safe, it’s a way to get attention or show power they would (or could) never show in real life. But even though these interactions are “virtual,” they aren’t like the holodeck and don’t come without consequences. They have real impacts on real people (the pen is indeed mightier). Let’s remember to be decent human beings, and when we’re online let’s refrain from saying things we wouldn’t say to someone’s face.