The quote kind of says it all, doesn’t it? There are days when the sheer mass of dumb zipping gap-mouthed through cyberspace makes one long for the days when the reach of a person’s stupidity could be contained to his immediate family and circle of friends (or, if he was a politician, to his discouraged constituency). For a sobering majority, Internet access has emboldened us to act like the digital equivalent of a chimpanzee flinging his diaper against the wall. I suppose certain individuals can be so incredibly lonely and frustrated that negative attention can provide a temporary relief from the emptiness – that someone acknowledged their existence, even if it was solely with four-letter words. Trying to picture oneself in that position, one tends to wonder why it wouldn’t be more productive and ultimately satisfying to seek positive reinforcement? Wiccans believe in the principle that whatever you put out into the world you get back threefold – accepting that as a starting point, does the aforementioned chimpanzee relish the prospect of three times the volume of excrement flying back at him?
It’s been observed that in the 21st Century we are all living two lives: our “real” life and our digital one. Employers are keen to evaluate the online activity of potential hires as an equal measure of a person’s character (if a promising, experienced and brilliantly-credentialed candidate interviews well but spends his nights harassing celebrities on Twitter, is that someone you want as a representative of your company?) I don’t see the distinction in how we should act in one or the other. We are both – why do we want to be a jackass in one of them? The digital life gives you the chance to create a strong identity for yourself, particularly since we are all much wittier when we have the chance to think about what we’re typing before we post it. The digital life must be lived consciously, and as a result lets you simply be, free of the hesitations, embarrassments, second-guessing and split-second gaffes that can accompany real-life interactions. You can be clearer, more erudite, more thoughtful and more engaging. You have a clean slate, especially when you choose to be anonymous. My blogging friend East Bay Writer doesn’t post her name or any details of who she is, and tales of her workplace are related with clever pseudonyms. You’d think that without the burden of identity, she has license to be as brutally snarky as she wants, cutting enemies down left and right and railing against the world with little fear of consequence. But she doesn’t. She still crafts a thoughtful, engaging and positive persona, and readers respond to this positivity in kind. Blogging pals Tele, Samir, Pat and Evan use their real names like I do but still, like EBW, remain true to the goal of creating a positive online identity. Contrast this approach to that of any number of anonymous Internet trolls who opt for the darker path and then think about who you’d rather spend time with – I guarantee it won’t take longer than a second to decide.
Our society has come to measure success in decibels, resulting in a level of discourse that makes Beavis and Butt-head look like Rhodes scholars in comparison. The example being set by many of those in the spotlight is that you need not be correct, learned or even particularly interesting, so long as you can yell insults at just the right moment. Naturally, people who don’t have nationally syndicated television shows want a piece of this action too, even if it’s as “trollguy69” on an obscure message board devoted to the third season of Stargate: Atlantis. The trouble is, a flurry of “LOL” responses are the most fleeting of acclaim, forgotten the instant they are posted, and certainly not anything you can build on. Ideas resonate and linger; background noise is just that. Given the option I’d rather try to put something out there that raises the bar, even if it’s to a limited audience, and even if I’m occasionally just wrong. If people are going to hate my guts for what I have to say, I’d rather they hate me for a reasonable point I articulated with intelligence instead of being able to dismiss me because my grammar was all over the map or I mistook a basic fact of existence (otherwise known as the “OMG Lord of the Rings is a total rip-off of Harry Potter!!!” fail).
The world simply would not function if the level of idiocy represented in the digital space was an accurate measure of the intellectual capacity of our entire species. Somehow the trains still manage to run on time and people still live healthy, productive lives. The only conclusion one can draw is that what we see online is certain people acting out of character, indulging their id for some unfathomable sense of gratification. What is somewhat reassuring is that in the grand scheme the Internet is still a technological baby, and accordingly, we tend to act like babies on it. Eventually what amused us as babies is embarrassing to us as teens and positively unthinkable as adults. We will grow, and graduate, and get better at using it to advance our collective humanity. Isn’t it preferable to be one of the ones leading the way? Nothing to LMAO about that.