On Facebook, for instance, I witnessed one of my friends engaging in a rancorous, obscenity-laden exchange with one of his friends. What set them off I'm not sure; I believe it was a simple political disagreement, something having to do with wealth and poverty or guns or the government. But man, did the expletives fly! Maybe it was all in fun, though it sure didn't sound like it. I considered stepping in to recommend civility, but I decided I'd be an unwelcome interloper in their mutual tirade.
Then there was the Twitter exchange I recently--and unwillingly--experienced, where one of the people I follow went back and forth for some time with someone else over the question of what he'd originally tweeted. He said he'd said one thing, and the other guy said he'd said something else, and by the time they were done I wasn't sure who had said what. It ended with your basic "dude, whatever," but it was pretty nasty to watch as it unfolded.
And then there are the reviews on sites like Amazon and Goodreads, which range from thoughtful and respectful to downright cruel if not barbaric. I deleted a couple of my Amazon reviews when I got return comments from people I'd never heard of that went something like, "who the **** do you think you are not to like this movie?" (I actually wrote to complain to Amazon, whom I thought moderated these things, but their only suggestion was to not post reviews if I was worried about how people would respond to them.) I'm amazed at the ferocity of some reviews on Goodreads, where four-letter words reign and the goal appears to be to come up with ever more extreme ways to insult and demean authors. I've considered jumping into a couple of those conversations too--with something like, "well, gosh, you know, it's hard to write good books, and if you don't like a particular book, it's not really as if the author is consciously trying to be mean to you or to waste your time"--but I decided, again, to let discretion play the better part of valor.
What to make of this? Am I just a dinosaur who believes we should try to be kind to each other, in word and deed, whenever possible? Or is there something about social media that breeds or at least liberates anti-social tendencies?
I think there is. Social media are relatively anonymous, relatively risk-free (no real chance of an actual fistfight, which as we know from Fight Club most people assiduously avoid), and--perhaps worst--virtually instantaneous, with little opportunity for the internal censor to intervene. Under such conditions, it's far too easy for small misunderstandings or disagreements to bloom into posturing, rants, and put-downs.
So I'd suggest we develop an app or a widget or whatever to deal with this epidemic of social media unpleasantness.
Or wait, we already have one. It's called conscience.