Imagine you’re walking down the street of a small town where you’ve lived all your life, and you see someone whom you see almost every day, and you notice that their shoe lace is untied, or their fly is down, or their shirt is misbuttoned, or they have made some other small, easily corrected mishap that might lead to embarrassment or even an accident.
What is the kindest thing to do in this situation?
I think we all know the answer: you gently, discretely call their attention to the matter, so that it may be corrected.
Some among us might choose to do so with a bit of what we would think of as good-natured ribbing. How this is received is going to depend on how well we know the person and how good we are at judging situations and moods. But even if you’re kind of a boisterous jerk about it, a little “Hey, buddy, XYZ!” on the streets of a small town or in the halls of a school or at the office water cooler is not exactly amiss.
Imagine for a moment that someone snaps a selfie that reveals a similar mishap and posts it to social media. Are the rules the same? The situation isn’t. You’re not seeing the person in real time, but a moment of time now past, a snapshot of a situation. A word to the wise might save the recipient some embarrassment by allowing them to remove the picture and replace it with something a little more composed, if they’re so inclined, but whereas in real space you would have the chance to drop this word before anyone else can see or say anything, the timing is trickier online.
Chances are by the time you’ve seen something, so have many other people, and by the time you’ve said something, so have many other people. No matter how kind and gentle your words are, they are liable to arrive with a flood of other words, some similarly kind and gentle and some decidedly not.
Oftentimes when we interact with people online, we expect them to respond to us as if it were an encounter in what we might call a village setting: neighborly acquaintances passing each other exchanging a few words. Sometimes, often even, when things are going fine for people on both end, that’s even what it feels like.
That’s not what it is, though.
I’ve used the example of a minor wardrobe malfunction up above, but this really has to do with any kind of interaction where one follows the mores and codes of face-to-face interactions. People who give unsolicited advice to strangers or near-strangers on the internet are an example. People who think that any opinion voiced on social media is an invitation to debate (or a promise to defend said opinion against all comers) are an example.
Not everybody who does these sorts of things has actual good intentions, but the ones with good intentions aren’t necessarily that much easier to bear, not when they’re multiplied over time and space.
When you’re dealing with people who are actually your neighbors or colleagues, you have a much better idea what their situation is then the little snapshot or snippet you got online. You can see if they’re on their way somewhere or settling in for a chat. You can see if someone else is already there ahead of you, talking to them about whatever. And not only do you know them, but they know you. Offline, there’s something much more like a 1:1 correspondence between “I know you” and “you know me” than there is online.
The fact is, the internet is not a “village” situation. The people you see on it are not your neighbors. I say this and know that there are people I know online whom I know better and feel closer to than my actual physical neighbors. The point of this post is not to say “ONLINE ISN’T REAL!” or to disparage online friendships, relationships, and communities.
But to be blunt: the internet itself isn’t a community or a relationship. Being on Twitter or Tumblr isn’t like going to the same high school with everyone else on here.
Now, I don’t have a detailed set of guidelines or proposed social mores for interacting with people online to go with this observation. I can tell you this: the ones we use for offline interactions don’t work, and any proposed rule needs to take into account the vast differences between online interactions and offline ones.
So let’s take a quick stab at formulating some.
Existence Is Never Invitation
Only the jerkiest creeps and the creepiest jerks ever say, in so many words, “You wouldn’t be [place] doing/saying [thing] if you didn’t want attention,” and this is extra true when the place in question is a notional space as big as Twitter or Facebook or the internet in general.
Many people who are less jerky and creepy, though, still cleave to the logic of “If something is in front of me, it must be For A Reason.” So if someone posts about a problem and it crosses their sight, they feel asked for solutions (or, in some cases, they feel personally attacked by the implication that the problem exists). If someone posts a picture, they feel the need to say or do something about it. If someone shares an experience, they feel the need to relate it to themselves. If someone shares an opinion, they feel the need to pick a side an start fighting. If someone discloses a trauma, they feel the need to comment upon it like it’s an interesting phenomenon.
Now, a lot of the times, some (not all) of these kinds of responses would be just fine, expected and accepted, if they were responding to something someone said to them personally at a cocktail party or whatever. But they’re not. They’re seeing something and responding to it as if someone had said it personally to them, in some reasonably intimate social setting.
The truth is that if people are looking for something when they put something out there, they’re generally pretty good about saying. People with a question will ask it. People seeking advice will invite it. The difference between a “So this happened.” post and a “I’m at my wit’s end, what to do?” post is that the latter will say, “I’m at my wit’s end, what to do?”
You Having Something To Say Is Not The Same As Me Having Something To Hear
If you and I are having a conversation and what I say sparks some kind of personal connection with you, then by all means, you take that tangent and you run with it. I mean, there are nuances and shades… if I’m talking about the time my true love got caught in a bear trap along with a bear who mauled them to death while a swarm of bees enraged by the bear stealing honey stung them both, further aggravating the bear, and you say, “Yeah, speaking of pain, that reminds me of the time I got a paper cut. Hurt like anything, it did!”… well, I think most people would say that’s a bit boorish.
But if we’re just talking, and I mention a frustration and you’re like, “I know what that’s like, [similar experience]”… that’s a conversation.
The line between “here is a related thing to show that I can relate” and “I just minimized what happened to you and now I’m making it about me” can be hard to navigate when it’s two people who know each other conversing face-to-face. When you’re talking to a near stranger on the internet, though? The line is practically dotted. You might think you know exactly what another person is going through, but again, you’re looking at a snapshot.
To use two personal examples: I’ve blogged about both my sleep issues (chronic insomnia) and my difficulty getting to a grocery store (I don’t drive, for reasons linked to disability), and had people give me advice based on assumptions about what I was talking about (sleep apnea, and anxiety linked to sensory issues specific to grocery stores).
This isn’t to say that if something you read online reminds you of an experience, you should keep your experiences to yourself! Chances are excellent that the very same place you read or saw a link to the other person’s thoughts is also a platform where you can share yours. Before you involve the person whose words sparked your own thoughts, ask yourself if there’s actually a reason to.
Check The Situation
This one is pretty simple, and it comes down to the internet not being the same as a hallway or small-town street: before you rush to tell someone that their conversational zipper is down, check the notes/comments on the post, check the person’s mentions. Take thirty seconds to see if you’re really the first person to notice someone made a gaffe.
Another angle you can take on this: before you say something, ask yourself the likelihood that someone else looking at the same situation would have the same response. Imagine how obnoxious it would be to hear what you’re about to say that many times. Then see if you still feel the need to say it.
Also simple. The hard part is not being defensive about it. Oftentimes when someone asserts or emphasizes a boundary with others, the kneejerk response is something like “SO I GUESS I’M NOT ALLOWED TO ASK QUESTIONS/GIVE ADVICE/GIVE A COMPLIMENT/DEBATE A PROPOSITION ANYMORE”.
But your right to do something does not require others to entertain you, and while some people are so entitled that they do feel they should be able to corner strangers and make these kinds of demands of them, I think most people who do so online are doing so not because they honestly believe they’re entitled to someone else’s time but because they have mistaken the internet for a small town and the semi-random collection of people they see on it for their close friends and neighbors.
The bottom line: the internet is not a global village. While it enables communities, it is not a community, and when you interact with random people you see on it as if you were all part of a single tight-knit community or a face-to-face social situation, you ignore the actual nature of the internet and risk stepping on toes, or worse.