Tel: 800-253-2350

We’re all tempted from time to time. But why do some people actually cross the line online?

First, a note. I almost didn’t publish this entry. Then I rewrote it six times. Why? Because it almost feels like I’m engaging in the activity I’m discouraging. Almost. But then I decided it was just happening too many times, and just a little too over the top, not to call attention to it. So here’s my attempt to learn from it, to ask the question:

Why do some people act like complete jerks online?

Yes, I edited that line too, about thirty times. You know what I wanted to say; What you’ve wanted to say since social media made it possible for people to have their say about your social existence. Now that we’re sharing everything we do, feel, think online, we’ve come to accept that others will comment on it. Our fans, friends and followers. Even strangers.

Oh my.

Most of the time the comments are wonderful. There’s a reason why there’s a “like” button. Thank goodness Facebook resists making a “dislike” one. What a terrible place social media will be if we make it easier to be negative with each other. But that doesn’t stop rudeness from rearing its ugly head. Nor is online rudeness new. It certainly predates social media, back to the era of discussion groups and listservs. What is new is the ability for so many people to add two-cents to your every update. We’re told that’s the point, the fun, the goal of social media: To share and hear feedback.

And I’d agree; up to a point.

Social media is equally personal and impersonal. Yet it’s not the same kind of personal as being in person. That’s due to a most unfortunate invention: the alias. Social pseudonyms allow people to wear a ring of invisibility. Acting in ways they’d never do in daylight. It’s why only the foolhardy and blowhardy are left in discussion groups these days. Why we skip the comments section on news stories. We already know what will be said. It’s all very Nancy Grace. No, worse, but who remembers Morton Downey Jr.?

Note to self: Social media is not a license to be an smartass.

Saying that makes me feel better. No, not really. I feel sad, confused, from a sociological standpoint. It’s not simply that we can say impolite, uncareful and mean-spirited things when we’re anonymous. It’s because so many people now do it visibly. With their name, photo and profile attached.

How did we get here?

Oh, I know. Web 2.0 is all about you. Your voice. Your blog. Your bubble. Mine, too. We can all have our say. No more editors. Not even our inner ones. By all means, write anything you like on your own page. But when you join the conversation of others, on their pages, shouldn’t your “social editor” be at work before you press enter?

It ought to be. No, I’m not a curmudgeon.

Less and less, we remember to edit ourselves these days. That leaves more and more opportunity to appear mean-spirited online. Maybe you’ve recently found yourself “hiding” posts from certain friends, so they won’t see them, won’t comment on them. They’ve turned too many walls into battle zones, not sharing zones. They have become our social media stalkers. Maybe you have one?

If the online public square becomes a big shoot-out, that would be bad.

Please: nobody loves a good argument more than I. A degree in philosophy, another in political science. Five years of talk radio. On the speaking circuit for two decades. If I don’t get audiences who say, “yeah, but….” then I’m having an off-day. Plenty of friends have mopped the floor with my arguments: Steve, Robert, William, others. And rightfully so, in a healthy discussion. With plenty of passion, but also with plenty of care. It’s an honor when they take time to respond. They can disagree, and be generous. It’s a beautiful thing.

I’m just old enough to remember my grandmother reminding me to behave in public. To hold my tongue. Not to say everything that comes to mind. To think before I speak. Because people have feelings. Even online.

It’s an important lesson, for me, at least. I’ve fallen into the smartass trap myself in the past. It’s tempting, with so much social material. But it’s bad. For your reputation. And for your soul. Your public persona is more than your profile. It’s the sum of your interactions: How you treat others in social media matters. It’s why it’s hard to be sarcastic and kind at the same time. Even puns can push the limits. That’s why we sometimes hesitate. We add emoticons, to soften, to indicate fellowship and good will, even in disgreement. And why we know when it’s time to stop. Or skip it altogether.

We should strive to maintain “society” in social media. Not let it become a place where to tie others to their posts, then burn them at the stake.

I wish someone would create a grandmother app. The kind that popped up as you are writing on Facebook or Twitter and said, Hey, this time, just shut up. Keep it to yourself. Know when to say when. The grandmother filter could keep us from harming others, and ourselves. To start, let’s at least notice what’s happening. If for no other reason than to keep our grandmother in mind the next time we’re tempted to act like a social smartass.