Social media was in its infancy in those days, but the thrill of ‘talking’ to someone on the other side of the world in real time and through a computer keyboard was enough to make us forget that telephones had been performing the same trick for many decades. WiFi was a non-existent dream and the rapidly-evolving mobile phones were still mostly used for speaking to people with our voices. Flip phones were new, and rather cool. Yes, really.
Flash forward to the present, and we’re surrounded by transmitted data, whether it be text, graphics, video, music or conversation. I can talk ‘live’ to my cousin in New Zealand whenever I see her name appear on my Facebook page. I keep in touch with my oldest friends through the same medium, one which is increasingly favoured by people of a certain age who are now too wary of trying a ‘new’ internet program. I’m suspicious of things like SmartFace or InstaApp; they are untested by me and are likely to remain so, lest I inadvertently send all my sensitive information to a group of bored, spotty hackers sitting in a Starbucks in Amsterdam. We oldies stick with what we’ve come to know – hence my truly ancient email address, which will soon be celebrating its twentieth birthday, and thereby entering its digital dotage.
I was raised in that analogue age. My very first digital watch, for example, was a very, VERY big moment. In those times, we mostly spoke face-to-face to one another, and so the way we spoke was governed by our anticipation of the effect upon the listener. We cared about how our words affected others, not least because a punch on the nose not only tingles somewhat, it also tends to ruin a friendship, or indeed a party. We therefore tended to be careful – as in: full of care about what fell out of our mouths.
Not so on social media pages today. I’m sure we’ve all become aware of the nasty business of internet bullying; a cruel strategy employed by cowards, psychopaths and other despicable people who lack scruples. The issue of which I speak, however, is more widespread than that. Every day I read parts of conversations on Facebook which are not merely robust or forceful, but downright obnoxious. Sometimes, the attitude comes out of left field and seemingly apropos of nothing at all, and sometimes I find myself tensing up in anticipation of the inevitable sh*tstorm as I read an innocent comment which invites the presence of the invisible warriors. Some people seem to have given up trying to be reasonable or graceful and seem instead to be reckless about causing offence or hurt. They seem to have stopped caring about the effect of what they say, just as long as they feel that they have ‘won’ an argument. The luxury of typing in our own homes has turned many into mean, even vicious interlocutors.
Tangible consequences for humiliating, insulting or hurting another human rarely feature in those online conversations which may not constitute bullying, but probably do fall into the category of acting like an arsehole. So many cowardly types seem to no longer care that they might be damaging other humans. Even relatively mild condescending tones can be profoundly – if unintentionally - harmful to some of our more vulnerable fellows, but my internet community is replete with snotty, snide, aggressive gobshites who seem to derive pleasure from coming across as – and here I go again dipping into the delicious English vernacular – utter bell-ends.
A few years ago when I was relatively healthy, relatively strong and still had my own testosterone coursing through my veins, I would find myself getting hot under the collar and wishing that one of these obnoxious little shits would pluck up the courage to talk to me the same way in the street. I imagined – using scenes dredged from a law-enforcement past characterized by the appropriate use of force – a brief interaction ending with one participant being very, very sorry that they had behaved like one of those aforementioned bell-ends.
Now, alas, a depleted and relatively frail fellow occupies this skin, but my revenge these days is, I tell myself, more mighty. To all those who shout online, who proclaim their superiority with unpleasant gusto and at the expense of others, my response is…to close the laptop, walk away and forget about them and their unimportant words and lives. I haven’t quite perfected the technique; depending upon the time of day, within an hour or two I’ll probably be back online for one reason or another, and then I’ll soon be once more huffing, puffing and sighing at the crass stupidity of so many of our fellow humans. Will it ever stop? Probably not; humans are such silly creatures.