by Sarah Firisen
Maybe I’m just getting old. Having recently turned 45, I realize that what I’m about to write may very well just be an early sign that I’m about to turn into one of those older people who need a young person to help them use their phone/computer/toaster. Despite the fact that I spent almost 20 years as a techie, perhaps I’ve jumped the shark and should give up trying to keep up with technology and the changes it brings to society. Even as I shake my head in disbelief at the lack of civility that seems to have become acceptable, I realize that civility is in the eye of the beholder and that to my 13-year old, this is what society is. This is the Beatles and their long hair, Elvis and his overtly sexualize hip gyrations, dresses that showed ankles, or one of the many, many harbingers of the “end of life as we know it” that have been decried over the years by the older generations.
So if you think I’m just old and stuffy, spare me the comments telling me so. But honestly, I do think that there’s something unfortunate going on and I worry about the slippery slope it puts us on. Since my marital separation, I’ve been trying out online dating. I’ve had some good dates and some bad. Just like dating was 20 years ago. But one thing is not the way it was the last time I was single, the utter degradation of civil discourse.
I’ve been really shocked at what men (and I know that maybe women do this as well, but I only date men so that’s my experience) feel it’s okay to say to a total stranger they’ve been talking with for a few minutes or less. It’s not that I didn’t meet my fair number of boors in bars in my twenties, but that behavior was almost always fueled by alcohol. But this behavior isn’t. And it’s not even the supposed anonymity of the Internet that encourages these people to say and do things that I have to hope they wouldn’t say and do in person – many of them have no problem owning to who they actually are before they launch into their sex talk.
Clearly online dating is far from the only Internet area where vulgarity, bullying and generally boorish behavior seems to be exponentially greater than its in-person counterparts; comments sections on blogs and newspapers (including some of the comments I’ve received on this site over the years) often seem to be utterly lacking in compassion, empathy or any consideration for other people’s feelings.
Cyberbulling and the dehumanizing of the subject matter sometimes gets taken to such extremes as to be almost funny, if it wasn’t so unpleasant; the poor woman whose photo happened to be on the homepage of the health insurance enrollment website was “lambasted by cyberbullies who associated her face with the politically divisive law”. Really? Are people really that stupid and that mean?
This would all matter less if we weren’t spending more and more of our lives online; if most of our dating, newspaper reading, TV watching, you name it, is done online, then what does this lack of online civility, this dehumanizing of each other when online, bode for humanity? I don’t want to be melodramatic, but I’ve had many, many really appalling online dating encounters. And what’s interesting is, many of these are with men whose profiles claim they’re decent, respectful guys looking for that “special lady”. Yeah, yeah. I realize that people say, online and off, what they think other people want to hear. But is this all it is? A marketing gimmick to sucker women into thinking they’re a good guy looking for a real relationship, only to reveal within minutes of conversation that they’re actually a crude, vulgar pervert? Maybe this is true some of the time, but it doesn’t seem like a very effective, efficient process. Presumably, most men, I admit not all, would rather get their kicks in real life than virtually. So if the end game is to persuade a woman to meet them for sex, then being intentionally this vulgar virtually would seem to be counterproductive. Now it has been suggested to me that this is a numbers game; you perv on enough people in a day, someone is bound to bite, both virtually and in real life. But that seems like an awful lot of work for the average guy to go through to get a few cheap thrills.
While I do think that this accounts for some of the messages received, I do think that there’s more at work here. Is the virtual self becoming so disassociated from the real self that the mores and values that we hold dear feel irrelevant once we log in? A few years ago, I became quite absorbed in the virtual reality game Second Life. Besides being taller and thinner than my real life (RL) persona, I think that my SL avatar was pretty representative of who I am; I was married to my then husband both in RL and in SL. But clearly, there were many, maybe most people, living out very distinct personas. Sometimes, they weren’t even the same sex in RL and SL. And to some extent, that’s fine, that’s the nature of fantasy. But there clearly is a gray area and that gray area is increasing as the virtual world and the real world become increasingly intertwined. I think that I still live virtually as myself, whether my identity is known or not. But as the means to disassociate ourselves become more varied and sophisticated, how easy will it be to live multiples lives?
And if more of those lives are online than off, what will that mean? For my 13-year old, this is the only world she’s ever known; the world of Instagram. Snapchat, Facebook and texting. It already seems to be the case that a relationship, whether romantic or otherwise, can be conducted wholly online. And what some of these boys are expecting from these online relationships is not what we were doing as 13-year olds. And again, I realize that times change. What I was doing at 13 was not what my mother was doing. But this seems to be a quantum leap rather than generational and I do believe that the technology has fueled that.
In a world where a teenage girl being raped isn’t even the worst thing but instead the perpetuation of the humiliation and violation continues because the perpetrators and witnesses upload photos to Twitter, we may really have a problem as a society. If 40-something year old men can so disassociate my online persona from me as a human being that they think that they way that they talk to me and that the videos and photo they send me should not be considered offensive, then how can we possibly expect teenagers, now and in the future, to do better?
What does this mean? I honestly don’t know. Will there be some kind of backlash and correction? Maybe. Do we need to do a better job of integrating conversations about this into how we teach our children. Probably. This goes beyond talking about degrading your reputation through your social media presence, though that’s a part of it. Yes, colleges and employers now regularly troll social media and will judge you on your postings. But what about the things they can’t trace back to you but are as much a part of how you interact online as your Facebook posts, maybe more. Should you not have to worry about those? If not for the sake of your reputation, then perhaps, at least for the sake of your personal integrity and humanity?