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The “Online” vs. “Real Life” Myth. | Bethany Suckrow

The “Online” vs. “Real Life” Myth.

A long time ago, when this blog was in it’s infancy, I wrote a post that hurt a friend of mine. I won’t go into humiliating detail, but let’s just leave it at this: she posted something on Facebook I disagreed with, and I decided to blog about it. Ever the arrogant English major, I dug down to the etymological roots of the words she used, blathering on about how petty I found her ideas at the time.

And then she read it.

And then, in a truly humiliating turn of events, more people read it. Her husband. My husband. Our friends.

And then they talked.

And then I took down the post.

As much as I wanted to be right and felt my ideas were valid, I couldn’t deny that the way I went about expressing my ideas was wrong. I hurt my friend, not because she’s too sensitive and can’t take constructive criticism, but because my criticism was not constructive. It was snarky, rude, and though the post didn’t mention her by name, it might as well have.

I think I thought that no one was paying attention to my blog, so I could get away with it. I think I thought that maybe if I obscured my language a little bit and buried my frustration with her beneath layers of intellectual rhetoric, people would think I was smart and witty and would forgive me my ruthlessness. I think I thought that my blog was my territory, so no one could criticize me. I was wrong.

My friends were gracious enough not to storm my comments section with their rage, but to reach out to me privately and say, “did you really intend to hurt?”

I didn’t intend to, but I did hurt.

I’ve had to relearn that same lesson over and over again online, and in those other instances, I haven’t always had the graciousness of friends to help me dismantle my arrogance. More often than not, it has happened with complete strangers, or people I’ve never met in person.

Sometimes being a writer on the internet feels a little like those Sunday mornings that start with good intentions and result in you yelling curse words at the driver that cuts you off in traffic on your commute to church… and then that same driver pulls into your church parking lot just ahead of you. Do you risk being a little late to worship and park down the street so they don’t realize Crazy Lady With All the Swears and Middle Fingers also attends the 11 a.m. service?

We go with the best intentions for engaging healthy community and facilitating important discussions about faith, human rights, theology, politics, the arts, and a whole manner of really important, worthwhile things, but then we jump into conversations and they are promptly derailed by egos, sarcasm, condescending remarks, and general nastiness.

This is humanity and it’s not unique to the internet.

But so often we tell ourselves that those people we disagree with so vehemently “don’t know us in real life” and we shrug it all off like it doesn’t matter. The obvious implication is that the people we interact with online are somehow less “real” than us, and that the consequences for how we interact are less “real” too. And it’s unhealthy. Because it makes it hard for us to talk about something well, like human rights and theology, without treating others as less “real,” less human, for disagreeing. And then it defeats the whole purpose of these conversations to begin with. The “real life” versus “online” distinction is an immature idea, and it gives way to immature behavior.

It’s “online” versus “offline,” not “real life” versus “fake life.”

I know this because this online life of mine has led to a lot of real friendships over the past few years. The “online” versus “real life” distinction is the excuse I whip out when someone disagrees with me and hurts my feelings.

I’m not saying that we owe it to everyone on the internet to treat them like they’re our best friend. All it means is that we are just as responsible for treating people like they matter as we would if we were confronting them face-to-face. It means that if we see conversations derailing into hurtful, condescending arguments, we’re responsible for setting a boundary for ourselves, and sticking to it.

My friend Tamara left a brilliant comment on my post a few weeks ago, and I’ve adopted it as my new mantra :

Don’t engage the crazy.

Most times, this means not engaging my own crazy. (Because let’s face it, I can’t even make it to church without losing my temper.)

For me, setting that boundary means saying, “This discussion isn’t healthy for me. I’m sorry, but I have to end this conversation here.”

So here is my invitation : if you’re as tired of the “online” versus “real life” myth as I am, then let’s intentionally change the way we talk about the internet, and by doing so, acknowledge each other as  equally real, and then treat each other that way. Let’s set and maintain healthy boundaries for how we interact. Let’s be quick to listen and slow to speak and love one another as ourselves, because isn’t that why we’re here? At least that is my hope.

So, real talk with me : how do you approach engaging people on the internet? What are the things that raise your hackles and how do you tame yourself down? What are the boundaries you’re setting for yourself these days? Do you disagree with me?

  • http://www.gabbingwithgrace.com/ Grace at {Gabbing with Grace}

    Lets just say, I’m still learning. It’s been shocking how MEAN people are. I try to “kill em with kindness” and sometimes that works. :) sometimes, well, you know. ;)

  • http://www.gabbingwithgrace.com/ Grace at {Gabbing with Grace}

    Lets just say, I’m still learning. It’s been shocking how MEAN people are. I try to “kill em with kindness” and sometimes that works. :) sometimes, well, you know. ;)

    • http://www.fromtwotoone.com/ Danielle | from two to one

      That’s exactly what my dad always says — kill ‘em with kindness :)

  • http://allisonvesterfelt.com/ Allison Vesterfelt

    I’m with you Bethany. Now I’m trying to find the balance between speaking what’s on my mind, and speaking it in a way that is humble, healthy and constructive. Easier said than done, but a great place to start is with assuming people are equally real and valuable. Great post.

    • http://InkyJazz.com/ Bridget

      I’m challenged by this, too, Ally. The thing is, if we can’t assume our readers are real and valuable, what is the point of engaging? Good advice.

  • Joann Pensabene

    This is a great post, Bethany. There is much here to think about. I’m a relatively new blogger and I so appreciate your insight and your candidness. Thank you.

  • http://www.leighkramer.com/ Leigh Kramer

    Good food for thought here, Bethany. In the last couple of years, I’ve identified topics I won’t engage in so if I see people sharing articles about said topics, I won’t read them. I know how I will react, I know it won’t change anything, and it won’t be healthy. So I don’t engage. When I receive a comment that seems mean, I take a step back and see if I’m reacting defensively or if it’s poorly worded constructive criticism, etc. I’m trying to believe the best of people who comment on my blog and seek common ground even when we view things differently. I never ever reply to comments right away, mostly because I designate time to do it in a batch but also to give myself time to take the response in.

    • http://InkyJazz.com/ Bridget

      Leigh, I think trying to believe the best of people is key. I first assume it’s my misunderstanding before I jump to any conclusions. But then, this is Communication 101.

  • http://valderingrojas.wordpress.com/ val dering rojas

    Ultimately, I ignore them.

    I usually furiously type something out to them, then ask myself why I am wasting my time, then delete. In these few minutes something else happens as well: I start to think about the person on the other end of my rant– AS A PERSON. Not everyone is super-bright, or super-educated, or has much couth– and who am I to judge about that. So, I usually just leave things at that, and try to seek out and respond to what incites in me civil, polite conversation.

    Your friend is right. Don’t engage the crazy.

  • Starleisha Gingrich⭐

    I literally just started a blog post that was going to be calling out a (quasi-former) best friend for her mistreatment of me. Not thinking of her as a person with a heart or feelings, but a blank page waiting for my hurt to be placed upon. Not cool. Thank you for these words. I’m gonna go disengage my crazy.

  • http://InkyJazz.com/ Bridget

    I love a good well reasoned debate, but I generally try to find common ground and avoid commenters who seem to be in it for the controversy or who are just plain ornery. I only have so much time in life … .

  • Stacy

    I know this well. I have made mistakes and had to reevaluate the intentions of my heart. I have come to the conclusion that I will always lead with grace. And grace – at the very core – is undeserved. So, when someone sent me hate mail because they didn’t agree with something I said – I waited for a little while and then responded with a brief acknowledgement of her email and just said that it was my intention to encourage and not to upset. Period. Who knows – maybe she was just having a crappy day and lashed out. I’m going to choose grace. It’s not always easy and I don’t always do it. But, things always turn out better when I do. :)

    Love your blog. Hopped over here from your comment at Grit and Glory.

  • http://thisblankpage.com/ Timothy Snyder

    Yeah, I’ve definitely gotten caught in a “subtly blogging about a friend” situation like your own. It can be hard because you want to talk about those real life happenings to your audience, and it can be easy to forget that with a blog, your audience is technically the entire world.

    When writing a blog, I don’t think you should say anything that you wouldn’t say to a person’s face. And sometimes, you have to respect private matters as best as you can. Maybe bring up the issue without referencing a specific incident.

    You don’t have to go far on the internet to see endless amounts of people acting crazy, saying horrible things and pretending it doesn’t matter. It does. In fact, as our world becomes more and more digital, our digital representations of humanity mean exponentially more.

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  • sonya

    I don’t generally engage on the internet, but . . . I see the key difference as being reaction vs response . . . reaction being more of an immediate and often emotional way of “engaging” while a response is generally much more thought out and works to be even handed, taking both sides into account (showing that we have tried to understand the totality of the other person’s stance as much as possible). Being careful with my words is very important to me but even with a lot of thought things can go unexpectedly haywire. Discussion is partly for that very purpose, to see how others “take” what we have said and to learn from those perceptions. Hopefully, my own comment here will be taken the way I hope it to be taken, just as my own (current) perceptions. “Take what you like and leave the rest” is an expression that might be useful here, I think.