The cloak of anonymity

The internet is a terrible place to discuss ideas and work out complex feelings. Yet, in our hyper busy culture we seem to fall back on it more and more. It’s difficult to make time for a community meeting, but we end up having our days taken over by comment wars. Over the last couple of years I have followed a number of stories/issues and I have seen how much divisiveness they create. It is the rare blog post about anything even vaguely controversial that doesn’t go cockeyed in the comments section.

I recently wrote a post for a local blog celebrating the idea of supporting local community based schools. I took great pains to focus on the positive. The issue of school choice has been embraced by a number of people in the neighborhood as a way to create more “progressive” schools. On the surface it sounds like a great idea. However, in my experience it has led to a great deal of segregation by class as well as race. In the post I pointed out this reality and one can imagine the love that i received in the comments section.

Clearly, there are complex forces at play here. Rather than facilitating useful conversation, internet based discussion ends up alienating the individuals with different opinions. I’ve tried to recuse myself from the online chatter and focus my attention on my own school. Still the tendency to go negative on the internet leads to hurt feelings and a lack of real conversation.

In addition to focusing on my kids’ school, I have been working on several documentaries that also make it clear that while the internet may be a useful way to galvanize support for issues it doesn’t appear to be useful in terms of changing peoples minds.

All nuance is lost in the translation from brain to fingers. I know that as I type I tend to emphasize tone in my head. I soften some words and emphasize others and then a part of me believes that others will read it with the same joyful cadence. When this isn’t the case and someone takes offense at what I have written, my response is emotionally charged. I try not to write back before I’ve calmed down but it’s difficult. I responded very gently to the first 5 or so negative responses to my above mentioned post. When the comments ended up as personal attacks i stepped away from the computer.

While I had taken great pains not to offend those who held a different opinion about our local school options, I wasn’t writing it to change their minds. My intended audience was those people who hadn’t yet fallen on one side of the issue or the other. I believe that civilized people can disagree civilly. Unfortunately, when we disagree while wearing the cloak of anonymity we have a tendency to hit below the belt. Once a fight turns dirty there’s no turning back.

This morning I tried to follow a comment thread concerning assisted reproduction/parenting/donor issues. The anger coming from all commenters was hard to read. It had a trainwreck quality that clearly led each side to feel even more passionate about their own beliefs. I understood where both sides were coming from. I believe that in the end they want the same thing. It’s frustrating.

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