Last Sunday, the first page story of the New York Times Week in Review section was an article titled 'Dealing With Digital Cruelty" by Stephanie Rosenbloom.
My take away from the article was 1) anonymity and faceless distance on the web does encourage our worst behaviors and 2) there are smart ways to deal with unpleasant web encounters and even learn something about ourselves in the process.
Then, the very next day, I and a few others, had just such an occasion to learn the same lessons directly in a little Facebook group to which I belong. Here's what happened.
The Facebook group where this happened is devoted to the discussion of local city council and school politics. On Monday, a member of the group posted a link to the N.Y. Times article about digital cruelty, with her suggestion that members read it.
A little background about our city: the Secret City enjoyed nearly unlimited federal largesse during the heyday of the Cold War when atomic bombs were big business out at the plants. But, since the close of the Cold War and the economic collapse of 2008, federal funding to our little city has declined.
Additionally, the Pellissippi Parkway between Knoxville and Oak Ridge has made it just as quick for workers to drive to the federal reservation from Knoxville as from Oak Ridge. Consequently, the majority of new federal contractor workers choose to live in Knoxville, not Oak Ridge. That has resulted in major demographic shifts. Our population now has an unusually high number of elderly retirees. Over fifty percent of our population as a whole is now classified as 'economically disadvantaged.' So, of course, sales tax revenues have been drying up too.
In short, there has been and continues to be considerable economic and social upheaval in our little Secret City. We are in the midst of major changes and uncomfortably trying to redefine ourselves as a community.
Change is always hard and there is 'spirited debate' all around, not only across kitchen tables, at water coolers and in city and school meeting rooms, but on line as well. For better or worse, social media has become, for a significant number of people, the de facto public forum.
Our little Facebook group thankfully does not permit members to hide their identities behind web monikers. For that, we can thank the forethought of our founder who must have known the toxicity of anonymity. So honestly, I have never seen any exchanges in the group which I think qualify as 'digital cruelty.'
But there is, of course, pointed commentary which calls elected officials and city/school employees to account for both policy decisions and spending. There has been considerable expose of data which makes a certain segment angry and defensive. Finally, there is the usual give and take of good people, some of whom sincerely see black where others see white. We will all, I suppose, eventually have to make concessions to arrive at the gray area of consensus.
But isn't that what a public forum is supposed to do? When has democracy ever been tidy? I went to school in Spain under the Fascist rule of Franco. As they say, the trains ran on time and the country was quite tidy, but tidiness was (and still is by some) much over rated. I much prefer the messy give and take of democracy. But I digress.
Shortly after that link to the New York Times article was posted in our little group, some members began recalling what they perceived as 'digital cruelty' in other internet venues over the years by the self same person who had posted the N.Y. Times article. One member even posted a screen shot of something that person had written which dated all the way back to 2007!
"Wow," I thought, "all the way back to 2007! Amazing."
As I read the screen shot, I could not help but recall that old admonition, "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." The world wide web, it seems, is the ultimate glass house.
And then, I recalled the Facebook pages of friends who are now dead. Their photographs, timelines and scattered commentary still remain, hanging in Facebook cyber space. The name of one woman who has been dead for several months still eerily appears in the column of persons available to Facebook chat on line. Spooky, right?
Then, I decided to check out my own old FB page, MarMelodian. I haven't recorded as MarMelodian since 2011 and I tried to 'kill' that FB page a long time ago, but as of Saturday, there it was, still hanging out in cyber no man's land.
The world wide web is the new immortality. I wonder how many of us would have been lured into it had we known that there was no going back, for it is not only a glass house in the present, but seemingly, a glass tomb for all comers, a glass tomb which will last forever and ever, in perpetuity, whether we like it or not.
So please, don't throw any stones!
Just as an aside, I make no judgement about the woman who posted the article. I don't read her blog and know little about her. But I thank her for the lesson she provided to me and probably several others about the internet this weekend.
By the way, I checked my website stats this morning and saw that in August, I've averaged 227 daily visitors to Dogwood Daughter. I don't know who most of you are (though i wish I did!), but I appreciate every one of you. As usual, if you find anything here that you like, I ask you to please share my little website with someone else.
You are my only advertising. Thanks!
Be Well and Good Luck,