Does the internet make us mean? It’s a question that doesn’t seem so unreasonable if you check out the comments of nearly any news site or blog that allows them these days.
Once upon a time, people seemed more likely to abide by an old piece of wisdom: “If you haven’t anything nice to say about someone, you shouldn’t say anything at all.”
If it’s true that there ever was such a time, it was surely before the internet came along.
Since then, people say whatever comes to mind, often without a filter, as soon as it comes to mind. Without thinking of the consequences. Without taking other people’s feelings into account.
Somehow, having your say became more important than politeness.
I doubt if Emily Post would care much for the internet.
Consider this example from a recent hot story about an Ohio execution that went wrong, with the headline, “Ohio Says Controversial Execution of Dennis McGuire Was ‘Humane’”. Here’s a sample — a very small sample, mind you — of the comments to the story:
Comment #1: “It’s too humane!”
Comment #2: Yes, idiot. Too humane. We should go back to breaking on the wheel. We can start with criminals who murder people, then we can move onto criminals that steal a loaf of bread. Then anyone we disagree with politically. Finally, anyone who looks different. Ah, the good old days.
When you are in church this Sunday, learning about Jesus, mercy and forgiveness…..remember well this conversation.
Comment #3: Oh shut up.
Comment #4: Oh, give me a break, It’s people like you that take up for the criminal and could care less about the victim. BTW, you are the Idiot.
Comment #5: Really? In anything I have said, you saw the words “I prefer the criminal to the victim” ?
I said that? Show me where. Go ahead.
Nice fake picture, by the way. Posing as a chick. Yeah, right.
It goes on…and on…and on.
On stories like this across the internet. People so mean-spirited that some websites have had to switch to different comment systems, restrict the manner of login to leave comments, or shut comments down altogether.
I would like to think, and to a degree, it’s probably a perfectly valid guess, that if these people were all sitting around a table in some focus group, they wouldn’t say these things, or at least not in the same manner, if they were face to face.
But that relative anonymity the world wide web provides us seems to also provide a level of boldness that makes us forget a bit too easily that there’s another human being on the other side of that screen name. Even if we don’t happen to agree with whatever he or she is saying at the moment.
Maybe comments for some sites shouldn’t appear immediately. Maybe there should be a cooling-off period, in which the comment lingers for a few hours in cyberspace, then appears in the senders email box with a simple question: “Is this really how you want to behave?”
It may not make a difference, so long as you’re posting by just a random, generic, non-identifying screen name.
But if you’ve got the guts to post your real name or your real photo, maybe it’d make you think twice.