Be Your Self ? Sounds interesting, right? Almost everyone has heard a horror story where childhood friends or family members become so enraged with one another over a blog post or Facebook status update that they end up estranged. That we can hurt one another’s feelings may not qualify as news, but how we interact online is much more complex than we may have previously assumed. Why is it that our online selves tend to display more moxie and less concern for others’ feelings than our offline selves do? What is it about the nature of online interaction that tends to increase volatility in online relationships? Most importantly, if it’s true that the Internet makes some of us act like jerks, what can we do about it?

Be Your Self

The Stats – Be Your Self

According to a recent VitalSmarts survey, upwards of 20 percent of social media users have avoided running into someone in person because of a cyber-argument, and 40 percent have admitted to blocking or deleting friends because of comments or posts they found irritating. Almost 90 percent of those surveyed believed that people were more rude and more difficult online than in person. Why is it that interacting online is so prone to the present-day-manners equivalent of the wild west?

Context Is Everything

Social norms are agreed-upon boundaries that most people stay within when they are in social settings. When the settings change, the norms change, which is why going out for drinks with a co-worker makes sense on Friday night but not over Monday’s lunch break. Our environment and the people in it give us clues as to how to behave, even on a subconscious level. Social media platforms are such new “places” and there are so few people — if any — in our actual space while we use it that the establishment and reinforcement of social norms hasn’t yet caught up to what we’re doing online — or how we’re doing it.

Someone Somewhere Is Reading This

We behave in a less inhibited fashion when we post and interact online, because we don’t have to (or get to) see the reactions of others. Without the verbal and non-verbal cues experienced and shared in face-to-face interaction, it becomes harder — and seemingly less necessary — to see, find and remember common ground. Empathy, the process humans employ that allows us to be affected by another’s emotions is something that happens more easily and readily in real time and space. The virtual spaces created by technology and social media also feel less real to people, which can make us forget that virtual actions still have real consequences.

Be Who You Are

The last important piece that affects our online interaction is actual and perceived anonymity. Fake user names allow some of us to feel invincible when posting to a blog or forum. Because we believe that what we post cannot come back to us in a way that will affect us, the filter and the gloves come off. Perceived anonymity also produces a dangerous effect in our online interactions. Because most people present an augmented online image on social media sites (think of all the photos you’ve untagged on Facebook), a vested interest in reinforcing that image develops — even at the cost of treating others worse online than we would in an offline environment.

Finding Common Ground for Your Online and Offline Self

Thankfully, the same people typing vitriolic comments also say “please” and “thank you” in face-to-face interactions. In other words, most of us know how to be decent and civil, and there’s no reason that knowledge can’t translate into online practice. With mindfulness toward the fact that our online selves can act a bit entitled coupled with the intention to not devolve into self-righteous jerks, we can ensure that all of our relationships — online and off — stay safe. With that in mind, here are three questions to ask yourself before posting anything online.

  • Would I say this out loud and in person? If there is any chance that what you’re about to post would not come out of your mouth in a room full of people, or even to the one person you’re directing it toward, don’t post it.
  • What are the consequences — intended and unintended? Get creative with this one. What if your mom sees this post? Your middle school math teacher? Your crush? If the hot flush of shame would at all rise to your cheeks, nix it.
  • What if the shoe were on the other foot? This question gets to the heart of what makes human relationships both good and complex. Putting yourself in the other’s shoes is the practice of empathy, and it should be our north star in all our real and virtual interactions.

Honesty is always the best policy so try to be honest with yourself about your online behavior. Don’t do or say things you wouldn’t say in real life, and humble yourself enough to accept that every picture you (or your friends) post isn’t going to be magazine-worthy. Be yourself — everyone else is already taken.