The Reality of the Internet

by Bob Hughes on September 30, 2015

Bob Hughes · Posts by the Community Technology · September 30, 2015

social mediaThe internet is a sensitive place, and people are easily offended. That’s often because online it’s hard to tell if someone’s being ironic or offensive, if someone’s being humorous or merely insensitive. What’s worse, on the internet everyone can hear you scream, and people given to public shaming are everywhere taking everyone to task for the slightest offense against whatever counts as propriety among the growing hordes of those who look to have their hackles raised.

We’ve all seen stories of people being raked over the coals for an unfortunate Twitter post. For example, two years ago, Justine Sacco was a victim of a misplaced comment and found her life turned upside-down in hours.

Because so much online communication – especially quick tweets or other posts on social media – lacks the in-person vocal or facial modulations that help others interpret what you’re trying to say, things can go wrong quickly. It’s a long way from the days, not even 20 years ago, when I would ask one of my editors at the newspaper where I worked to stop writing emails to me in all capital letters, because it came across as shouting.

She hadn’t realized it – she thought she was simply emphasizing certain phrases. But she wasn’t there in person to make that emphasis, so her emphatic but non-judgmental words came off to me in digital communication as if she were screaming in my face.

It’s worse nowadays, when everyone is pretty much connected yet not physically present from everyone else and our outrage is ready to be fueled by the merest gaffe. And all too often most of us don’t stop to realize the human behind the online presence. All people react to is the idea of someone rather than the real one.

My colleagues and I work with entrepreneurs and thought leaders to help them get their messages across in a vital way. We want to create a strong online presence to create a conversation with the author and an audience. It used to be that we urged clients to be controversial, so that they’d get noticed. But so much gets misinterpreted today that controversy can lead to calamity.

Not that we want our clients to be anodyne. We want to help their personalities to be represented online so that what they have to say is clear. But more than ever we need to be sensitive to what other people believe about that personality since it can be easily distorted by misunderstanding or miscomprehension.

Something about public shaming is primal to human nature – we want to see others fail even if we quickly we regret that urge. But we also want attention. We just want it to be positive as far as we’re concerned, yet we can’t control that.

All we can do online, with luck, is to engage in what we hope will be a conversation, even if it’s a virtual one.


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