A friend of mine asked a question similar to this recently, and it got me to thinking yet again about the subject of internet communication. I have visited this topic on several occasions before, and it’s not without some level of amusement that I find my own personal feelings on the subject seem to change based on circumstances and time. This might even make me sound like a hypocrite on occasion, and I’m fully aware of that. Like much in life, though, this isn’t something that really has a clear black and white distinction, so I’m not uncomfortable with the fact that my stance could at times appear to be a hazy one.
This kind of question comes around most often when someone has taken offense at the behavior of an individual on the net. The response, normally from the offending party, is one of disdain and mockery. The thought process seems to be that the internet is, basically, one big joke. If you get upset by something you see here, you should go outside more. Thus, the only people who take the internet seriously are losers who have no social life.
Maybe at one point this was true, but I really don’t think it is anymore. Whether you realize it or not, the internet has grown to something that, in one way or the other, manages to touch our lives every single day. It has become so important that colleges now include the financing of a new computer into student loans. There are government programs in the works (and perhaps even implemented) to provide free or reduced cost high speed internet access to welfare recipients. Entire corporations (MySQL, AB for one) are housed entirely online, with all of their employees telecommuting on their own schedules. Yes, there is still a lot of fluff out there. Yes, the biggest online industry continues to be pornography. The fact remains, however, that in 2006 we are all part of the internet age. Even if an individual is not an active member of the online world, their lives are in some way touched by what goes on there. With that being the case, is it really fair to say that communicating online is a joke?
Of course, there is the anonymity factor. There is a classic Pennny Arcade strip explaining this phenomenon, which they call the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. The logic, as detailed in that comic, is simple. Take a normal person, give them the illusion of anonymity and an audience, and watch them turn into a total fuckwad. People say and do things online that they would never dream of doing in “real life,” largely because it would get them in a great deal of trouble (i.e., they would get their asses kicked). Perhaps part of this stems from the fact that, for perhaps the first time in the history of mankind, young people have an outlet for expression that puts them on equal (and at times higher) ground with their elders. In the past, in order to get a forum for people to listen to your words you had to have some influence or importance, both of which usually came with age and experience. With the internet, anyone and everyone can find a way in which their words can be read by scores of people. Unfortunately, though, because this level of access has not been earned, the intellectual and emotional maturity that is necessary to keep the attention of an audience is lacking. In this kind of situation, an attention starved individual tends to start doing whatever is necessary in order to get the feedback they so desperately crave, and the end result is fuckwad behavior. When they are called on this they reference back to my original point and how the internet is a medium you aren’t supposed to take seriously.
But is anonymity really a factor anymore? To an extent it is, yes, because if you really wanted to be anonymous on the web you could easily create false email accounts and blog names to remove any trace of who you really are, but from a technological standpoint it’s really becoming quite difficult to truly remain anonymous on the net. Don’t believe me? Set up some false email accounts and use them to send an email to the white house with a bomb threat attached to it. I guarantee you within a few hours you’ll have some well dressed gentlemen at your door step who would be more than happy to explain how IP tracking works to you. If anything, the internet has made me realize that the cheesy song is dead on, and that it really IS a small world. I have met many people online who have ended up being connected to me through “meatspace” in one manner or other, even though our meeting had nothing to do with that common connection. With the popularity of services like Livejournal and MySpace, we’re all being drawn even closer together. The people who are reading your words are likely, at some point, to actually come face to face with you – or someone who has.
This being the case, is it really that strange for people to use these forums as a “screening” process to determine if an individual is someone they want to associate with? As my long time platonic life mate good_eeevening has said on many occasions, once you put your thoughts and feelings in words where others could possibly read them you own them, and you have only yourself to blame if the net result of those words being read is a negative one. If you choose to use this forum to only present the less appealing aspects of your personality, can you really blame someone who does not know you outside of it from assuming that it is all you are?
My current boss reads reads my livejournal on a fairly regular basis, and has done so since before he hired me. He did a google search on my name when he got my application, found my blog, and did some reading. Fortunately for me, there was nothing he read that gave him pause in hiring me. In fact, I believe the opposite was the case. Generally speaking when I actually “write” in this blog I attempt to divest as much of my genuine self into my words as I can, and because I did so my boss saw the characteristics he was looking for in a new hire. This simple little blog, because I made the decision to use it in what I felt to be a responsible manner, helped me land the best job I have held in my entire professional career to date. My Mother reads my blog, as do my three sisters. I try, as a result, to conduct myself here in a manner that is respectful to my audience. In this case, not only my online friends but my family and my boss as well.
You may be thinking to yourself that this is not relevant to you, but…are you sure? How do you know? I have, over the course of the years, been surprised on numerous occasions to learn who knew about my blog and checked up on it regularly. You might put everything you write behind a friends tag, but how do you know someone isn’t copying those words and sending them to someone else? How do you know the people on your friends list are who they really say they are for that matter. Anyone can create a live journal or myspace account, attach a fake picture to it, and create a whole new identity exclusively for the purpose of keeping tabs on you.
Would you be hired for a job if a potential employer read your blog?
Would you be comfortable with your mother reading your blog?
I was, and I am.
The way that a person chooses to present themselves online is not the only factor in determining who they are, but it is not inconsequential. More and more frequently, it is becoming the first step in determining whether or not you want to get to know a person better. If all you choose to present to the outside world is the bad stuff, there will be people who keep you at arms length as a result. If ALL donwaughesq did, for example, was talk about how he wanted to beat people with hockey sticks people would naturally not be inclined to be around him (especially at hockey games). Because he presents many aspects of his personality, though, we come to understand that’s just his way of expressi
ng frustration verbally. We’ve read about his tender moments with barnabyq, and been inspired by his determination in the face of severe health problems. He has given us a taste of who he really is, so we are not scared of being the victims of blunt force trauma to the head.
I don’t have quite the idealistic view of livejournal as a conduit for communication that people like nickdangerous and prynne have. I don’t automatically associate everyone on my “friends” list as a true friend, and I do often treat this as more of a reading service than anything else. That being said, however, I do believe that it IS a potential powerful means of communication, and I try to conduct myself here accordingly. I am not anonymous here. My face and my name are out here for the world to see, and my blog in many ways is a representation who I am. I have made genuine connections with people here. Hell, I met my other half here! If used properly, services like this can be amazing conduits for human interaction, and a fabulous way to network and make real connections to people.
It’s really all up to the individual.
So to answer the original question for those of you who don’t have the time or inclination to read my long and wordy post – Ae we really supposed to take Livejournal seriously?