Why are people so mean to each other on the Internet? Some call it trolling, but that softens what it really is: bullying. If you are insulting, threatening, or just plain rude on a web site you are a bully.
Katie Moody, a New England Patriots fan, sent a tweet to Baltimore Ravens receiver Torrey Smith in which she made a snide comment about his brother who recently died in a motorcycle accident. I'm a die hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan, so I have no love for the Ravens (or the Patriots for that matter). Sure, I engage in smack talk, but it is rarely personal. Saying "the Ravens suck" is a far cry from teasing a man about his recently deceased brother because of a football game.
Before you ask, yes, I do have a sense of humor. Yes, I can take a joke. Yes, I appreciate satire. But there is a line between dark humor and cruelty. Although some people are more thick-skinned than others these questions are a helpful test:
- Would you make the same comment to a friend?
- Would you see the humor if the same thing was said to you?
- Would you say such a thing to someone's face?
I've heard that saying something mean on the Internet makes less of an emotional impact on a someone than saying the same thing in person but the emotional toll on the recipient is the same. Your words hurt the person as if you walked up to them and said the same thing. Think about that.
The experience of Leo Traynor is another example. He actually quit Twitter due to the threats he was getting. Then, he came back, tracked down who was threatening him, and confronted the person. Before I spoil the ending you really should read his account to fully understand the extent of the threats, which included a package sent to his home. You can read the story here. Are you done? Okay. SPOILER: The threats where coming from a friend's teenage son who when confronted and asked why he did it said, "It was like a game thing." After all, who doesn't love a rousing game of Make Dad's Friend Fear for Himself and His Family?
Of course, vile online comments are not limited to Twitter. Carrie Goldman, who wrote a book about bullying, recently had to post this disclaimer about not allowing bullying comments on her blog after a guest blogger was being attacked in the comments. And there are many more examples happening every day.
When bullying does occur, retaliating is not the answer either. Ms. Moody's dead brother tweet resulted in her being threatened online. Was her initial tweet wrong? Yes. Was threatening her the answer? No.
Imagine if a similar interchange happened among friends at a party. Friend A, perhaps after two much to drink, makes a tasteless joke about Friend B's dead brother. Do you threaten Friend A? Probably not. You probably say something along the lines of, "Whoa. That was out of line. You should go apologize."
On the Internet you don't even have to do that. If you see bullying online you can ignore it. You can block it. If it continues you can report it. Some call it not feeding the trolls. I call it not being an asshole just because someone else is.
Before you hit post, submit, or send, remember the three questions. The Internet will be a nicer place for it.