The Internet and Changing Social Norms

Since the Internet became an integral part of our lives, we are evolving in lots of ways, socially but one of the most dangerous I see is how we treat complete strangers when we are behind the mask of an avatar and a username. We are anonymous. Or at least we believe we are—none of us actually is but that’s a different (though important) discussion.

I started interacting with people electronically when I became one of the pioneers of online teaching. I was quick to learn how much our facial expressions and body language play into communication because I made repeated mistakes of accidentally offending students by being sarcastic—or trying to be funny—or just being misunderstood. Now in a classroom, it’s rare that people are rude to people because we aren’t anonymous but I learned early on in this environment how clear we have to be and the importance of using emoticons, giving heads up of *just kidding* after a statement so I wouldn’t have to clear up anything that was misunderstood later.

Of course, I still make mistakes and I’m still learning but I think most people who interact on social media should take a class in netiquette and perhaps reeducate themselves on how to behave in a socially acceptable manner while talking to strangers online.

I have been appalled at some of the discussions I hear online and it has become much worse in the last several months. Here we are—we are all Americans—yet you would think we are tribal enemies with those who don’t agree with our views? And what’s more, it seems that this is now spilling out of the internet into our lives, with what we see about face-to-face conflicts with those with opposing views and the increase in stranger-upon-stranger violence.

Are we scared? Is that it? Our world is worrisome today, no doubt about it. Are we angry? It seems many are because we act that way.

It is not congress or an administration that divides us as Americans: it us as a people, our behavior, and our respect for one another. It’s fine to disagree with a person but take into account that you probably aren’t going to win many hearts and minds by calling a stranger a ‘libtard’ or a ‘deplorable.’

There used to be a time—I can remember it—when all of us, as Americans rallied together, despite our political or religious disagreements. We had something important to protect: our gift of America, or what we all believed America to be.

Have we lost that belief? Is it lying dormant for just a few years? I hope that soon, we will be able to get back to being the America I once knew, where people were kind—they smiled at you on the street just because they were happy or wanted to make your day happier.

Next time you get into a discussion with opposing views, try to imagine you are having that conversation in person. I bet it that conversation would have a different tone than the one online, with someone with who you disagreed.

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