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Thoughts on Technology, Community, Censorship, and Friends

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If you see yourself in this post, it probably is all about you.

Technology has moved at lightning speed in the last twenty years, as we struggle to keep pace. The world has become both bigger and smaller than we imagined it – our communities are no longer limited to the people who live on our street or in our towns, but now include people half a world away that we may never meet face-to-face. Our sense of community is defined by the geography of our minds; it is no longer limited, merely influenced by, geopolitical borders. Our understanding of one another is no longer filtered solely through political leaders or a few wealthy businessmen. We can Skype and Google Hangout and MSN Messenger each other any time we like.

It’s hard to hate people you know, personally. And although I believe we all have “prejudice” – some half-baked notion of how things are, according to someone else’s very skewed view of the world – we can get over that if we allow ourselves to give each other benefit of the doubt and keep an open mind. After all, if you judged me by one Facebook post on a bad day, you might think that I was the world’s snarkiest bitch. If you saw one post on my wall on a good day – a day when the kindness of friends and strangers had washed over me and left me feeling about as hard-edged and raw as a teddy bear – you might think I was just the sappiest, most unrealistic little optimist on the planet. Other days, my sarcasm and wry humor would throw you off balance and confuse you; taken out of context, if you didn’t have my good days and bad days to go by, you wouldn’t have the first clue how to respond, because you wouldn’t know me – you would only know one tiny facet of who I am.

The Internet has taken words like “friendship” and rendered them confusing. There are people I’ve known, online, for over twenty years. I do consider some of them to be real friends – friends I know and love better than many face-to-face acquaintances. Twenty years ago, people I knew and worked with scoffed at this: “Oh, these are just people on the computer? I thought you were talking about real people!” They actually said that. I always wondered what that made me. After all, I supposed I must be the figment of someone else’s imagination. I’m now “Facebook Friends” with some of these people, and their paradigm has shifted. For others, their “people on the computer” still includes only close family and friends, and that’s okay – because at least they now see that they’re “real.” They just choose not to expand the borders of their online community.

The potential for friction – the kind that can kindle a “flamewar” (or even, I’m half-convinced, a real one) – is greater than ever, but ironically lessened, too. The more we’re exposed to different people, cultures, and thinking the more we begin to shape our own mental framework and to rework our prejudices. Naturally, those “prejudices,” or PRE-judgments about people, about why they think and act the way they do, turn into judgments that increase in accuracy as we add more data points to our experience. Still, if all the data points are negative, it only cements any negative prejudices we might have held – or destroys any starry-eyed, idealistic worldview we might have clung to in our ignorance. I will openly admit that I struggle mightily with Christianity’s call to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” but I still adhere to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s important to remember that last part – to understand that it has nothing to do with how others actually treat us, but with how we want them to treat us.

The thing is, each of us serves as an ambassador of good will, and at the same time, we provide a model for the way we want people who don’t know us to behave towards us. If we are mean-spirited and hurtful towards one another, why wouldn’t strangers believe this to be an accepted norm? If we are just joking around, we ought to give them benefit of the doubt if new friends try – and fail – to join in with the same spirit they perceive. At the same time, as strangers trying to decide how to treat others, it’s usually a good idea to hang back a little, ask questions, and step in gently – not dive in, yelling  “cannonball!” – in until we feel confident that we really understand the rules of the game. Think of brothers and sisters: My mom once said that brothers and sisters can fight like cats and dogs, but woe to the person who tries to step in and break up the fight, because siblings will immediately join forces and turn on the outsider. I think national and ethnic groups are like that, too: big, dysfunctional families that will sometimes seem divided, to outsiders, but are united when they are put on the defensive by outsiders.

One of the freedoms I treasure most – I call it a right, being from the United States of America, which recognizes it as such and protects it in the U.S. Constitution – is the freedom of speech, which has been extended to encompass most forms of “expression,” like art and music, writing and speech, religious worship, even hand gestures, on occasion. Provided we’re not inciting riots, urging people to engage in criminal behavior, or wantonly endangering others, we enjoy a lot of freedom of expression. The very word, “censorship,” is anathema to most of us. But what, exactly, does “freedom of speech” mean?

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In other words, much to my children’s chagrin, I can “censor” them – restrict their right to free speech – within the boundaries of my own home, with impunity. I am not Congress. States, too, have the right to impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on speech, so this “right” is far from absolute, and ought to be guarded with the same sense of personal responsibility and accountability with which we would guard anything that is precious to us, to avoid good and decent people arguing that it ought to be restricted further or taken away. Gun ownership advocates, with respect to the Second Amendment, should take note and act accordingly.

There are many forms of censorship; only a few of them are illegal. Some of them are, unfortunately, necessary in a civilized society. Self-censorship, as “personal responsibility and accountability” – not imposed merely in an effort to seem “politically correct” – is be an admirable thing, particularly when it gives us a chance to pause, to reflect, and to ask ourselves, “Is this really what we mean to say, and does it reflect accurately on who we really are?”

Yes, we’re still going to blurt out stupid stuff, sometimes; at that point, I hope that everyone jumps back up to the earlier part of this thought and tries to give us the benefit of the doubt. To chalk it up to a moment of stupidity and a lack of thought, and not to beat their chests and cry “offense!” or declare war on us and a curse on our descendants over it. The world needs more kindness, and kindness ought to be our first response. By that, I don’t mean “turn the other cheek.” I don’t mean lay down, cover ourselves with a welcome mat, and invite thugs to trample roughshod over us.

Many years ago, I got a nasty email – a review of a story I’d posted online – from an anonymous member of the same site. Now, being rather thick-skinned when it comes to my writing, I didn’t immediately take it to heart and shrivel up in a ball of tears and snot. My first thought was, “Wow, I don’t think this person even read the story.” I crafted a reply, something to the effect of, “Wow, sounds like you’ve had a really rotten day. I don’t know who has kicked you around and made you feel bad about yourself, but I hope that doing the same to a random stranger has brought you some small relief and made your day just a little bit better.” And I didn’t mean that sarcastically.

Within a few hours, I had a reply. It wasn’t anonymous this time, and it was a sincere apology. I had hit the nail on the head. It was a teenaged boy, a high-school student, who had had a rotten, lousy day. Nothing had gone right. And yes, he was taking his frustrations out on someone else – forgetting for a moment that the people on the other side of the screen had feelings just as real as his own. We exchanged a few more critiques – I had sent him one with an honest four-star review after his kick-the-dog one-star review to me – and we got along just fine. I doubt he ever ever sent another anonymous hate-gram after that.

I started writing, this morning, to explain why I continue to be friends with difficult people – people who are sometimes hurtful to my friends. I’m loyal, that way – I don’t just cut friends loose because they’re having a lousy, rotten day and lashing out indiscriminately – so long as it’s just words, not threats or violence. I don’t appreciate it, and I won’t hesitate to censor it here on my blog. This is my “online home.” Facebook is and it isn’t – it’s Facebook. I have to keep reminding myself that my friends are all adults, all responsible for their own words and actions. My friends are welcome to block each other, any time; I just hope they’ll understand, sometimes, why I don’t block the ones they choose to block. Oh, if “difficult” is all you ever are – and all our relationship has ever been or is likely ever to be – if we’re only “Facebook Friends,” I’ll block you without blinking. If you’re really a friend, someone it would break my heart to block, then try not to be mean to my other friends – because abusing them is showing a great lack of respect to me. And if you behave that way here on my blog, I’ll delete your comments without a second thought, but I won’t delete you. You can choose not to be my friend, and I do understand if some of my friends block each other – I’d much rather they did that than to block me simply because I’ve been the conduit for their rancor or because I’ve chosen not to step in at every turn and break up fights between grown-ups.

Sometimes, people just don’t think. Sometimes, they just can’t think past their own unhappiness or anger, or their own prejudice or bitterness. Sometimes – and this includes me – there’s other crap going on in their lives that we know nothing about, and the toxicity just bubbles up, boils over, and tries to kill anything in its path. I think the first step, then, has to be to take away the excuses – to make clear that we won’t be their doormat or their whipping boy – but to also ensure that we’re not part of the reason for their unhappiness, and to show that we actually do give a damn, before lashing out in response.  Because if we don’t give a damn, or we are the reason for their unhappiness, we don’t really have any right to expect better treatment from them, do we?

HollyJahangiri

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. You can find her books on Amazon at http://amazon.com/author/hollyjahangiri. For more information on her children's books, please visit http://jahangiri.us/books.

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15 Responses to “Thoughts on Technology, Community, Censorship, and Friends”

  1. Libdrone
    Twitter:
    says:

    Wow. What a hugely thought provoking piece, Holly. I’ve actually given a lot of thought to block lists over the years and when periodically I have an experience that makes me revisit the issue I tend to blog about it. I try to be welcoming and to not take comments personally, though of course it is sometimes hard not to, BECAUSE these are conversations with other smart, thinking people. I am convinced the communication is not less real for occurring in typed words rather than spoken out loud. It really is amazing that it is now relatively easy to have friends in many different countries (heck even to have friends in far away states here in the US– there was a time that the chances of a woman in Houston casually meeting a man in Tacoma and chatting and getting to know him were quite remote, outside perhaps of a mail order bride scheme. It really is a HUGE change.)

    I had long looked at block lists as a question of keeping my stream to stuff that I actually want to see. I have been extremely pleased with FB’s latest iteration that allows you to simply NOT display someone’s updates in my stream without actually unfriending them or doing anything they would ever notice. That we are Facebook friends means that we are acquaintances and may sometimes chat, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we actually know each other or will ever become friends. (I long, long ago stopped making any sort of distinction between ‘friends’ and ‘online friends’. They are all real people and the relationship can be almost anything.)

    And hear, hear to your call for kindness as a first response. War should always be a last response rather than a first. And how fortunate to have made a real human connection with someone whom I strongly suspect you did teach an important lesson about real people on the other side of the screen. (Remembering nostalgically when one had the chance to do this most every day. I suppose one still could if you set your mind to it. But for me clean streams that do not lead to war are my motto. And even in the relatively civilized comments on my own blog I have lost friends over genuine disagreements. That is the nature of life I think.
    Libdrone recently posted…A Gentleman’s CMy Profile

    • How bad am I that I reply to this on Facebook and not here? Your comment there, though, really made my day and helped bring this year to a better close.

      One thing you kind of touch on, in your comment, that has come up in a couple of conversations since I posted this, is the idea of rethinking this issue from time to time. I realized, earlier today, that I’d been engaging in discussion (on another blog) with another commenter, and for some reason they were just rubbing me the wrong way. I could not put my finger on it, but if I’d had to say at that moment whether I liked them or not, I’d have said “No.” I went away for a bit, thought about WHY that might be, and realized that something they’d linked to triggered a memory of someone else’s paper I’d read over 20 years ago – that I hadn’t liked the author of that paper, and had mentally just dumped this commenter into the same category based on my own perception of the comments and the linked article.

      Having just written this post, the whole notion of online relationships and giving benefit of the doubt was at the forefront of my mind, so once I had this epiphany, I went to the person’s blog and started reading. Really reading. And you know what? After two posts I was laughing and nodding along, and thinking maybe we’d just engaged on a hot button issue – we weren’t even really on opposite sides of the issue, I don’t think, just nitpicking one little aspect of it to death…

      And I realized that 98% of my “not liking” this other blogger was all about me and not about them at all. I’m glad I didn’t say anything hateful or personal – it would’ve been completely unjustified and wrong.

      We have GOT to try harder to play fair with others.
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Thoughts on Technology, Community, Censorship, and FriendsMy Profile

  2. Jason Mathes
    Twitter:
    says:

    CANNON BOMB!! *kerploosh* I enjoyed reading this Holly. I still tend to segregate the online communities and “Real Life”. But if you look at it you kind of should.

    I mean who online would end up bailing me out of jail if needed? Be at my hospital bedside if I suffer an illness or injury? Loan me some money so I can feed my family if it was ever needed?

    The answer? Most likely nobody.

    In “Real Life” those who I have a ‘face-to-face’ relationship with are those who I can call at 2am, be there when I wake up, and always seem to have that extra dollar if I need it.

    So for me it is important to keep online relationships separate from those I know in person. To a point that is. I still need to remember that the people I know online are ACTUAL PEOPLE with feelings, and actual real lives doing stuff. How I interact with them does affect them in some small way. So I try and be mindful of that. And I still have to keep the same ethics, morals, and point of view as I hold with those in “Real Life” as I do online!

    I think a lot of the issue is that people can’t see past the screen they are typing on and aren’t mindful that there are real live people on the other end that they could be affecting in some way.

    I’m not defending the trolls of the internet though!

    Now… online gaming – that is a whole different dichotomy that we aren’t going to discuss! Lets just say that Mr. Hyde comes out to visit and I have no shame or guilt about it! 🙂
    Jason Mathes recently posted…WordPress Plugin Review – Simple Easy PollsMy Profile

    • You might be surprised. I could cite a Kickstarter campaign (somewhat misguided in its good intentions) to bail someone out of a foreign jail, within the last six months. (The “crime” alleged was more procedural than anything – no violence was involved. I heard they got a lot of reading done while incarcerated.) I imagine lots of people would chip in to help you feed your family if you were desperate; my God, Jason, people have received kidneys from folks they met on Twitter (no joke). A lot of people really are kind, and many of them are more generous than you and I can imagine. It’s rather humbling, really.

      As for online gaming, it’s like I tell my son – if you’re not cheating anyone, it’s all good. (He worries about the ethics of game cheats, and we discuss the ways you can cheat yourself – but honestly, that’s a personal choice. I read the ends of novels before I buy them, so I’m not one to judge!) When the online game personas mix with real life, that’s just creepy. Unless you’re at a con, and that’s okay. But it’s kind of a “what happens in WoW stays in Wow” – right?
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Thoughts on Technology, Community, Censorship, and FriendsMy Profile

  3. Dave Michaud says:

    I love the new look Holly!

    This article hit home. I was active on forums before blogs codified both the difference and the intersection where writers and readers meet and sometimes get into wrecks. Back then I joined a specific, topical forum with a need for info and was willing to cough up solutions or suggestions as part of my membership dues. I might receive an elegant and needful string of code one day and return a VOIP configuration model the next. Disagreements that turned into flamewars were usually waged over whether or not to instantiate an object or simply write a few lines for a one-time subroutine. My online friends at the time were often more passionate about this than they were about pleated VS straight khakis, or socks with sandals VS loafers with no socks. Don’t even suggest lace-up oxfords less they turn on you for hijacking an important thread worthy of defense.

    FaceBook has given rise to the “everyone into the pool” model of participation I think and communities of behavior are developing rather than hives of thought where lines are drawn in the sand–even amongst family members. I don’t see much difference between online or realtime friendships, they both develop according personal experience with an individual and only time tells the character of an individual.

    We were friends before FaceBook and disagreement has never derailed that friendship. You’ve never deleted one of my posts from your wall yet my wife has deleted several of mine. You’re eclectic and my wife is “clean stream”. I’ve been reticent to accept friend requests from people I chose not to hang around with in high school because they were more delinquent than I yet they turned out to be great folks while I’ve defriended mild-mannered nerd buddies from Junior High science class because they were too profane and rabidly hurtful as adults.

    As always Holly; I love your opinions more than a fried egg sandwich because they are often different than my own–you view a different path in the pachinko game of life and I enjoy your consideration and talent when expressing it.

    Dave

    • Thank you, Dave! 🙂 I hoped you would.

      That’s too funny, about your wife deleting your posts. Just yesterday, a good friend (who shall remain nameless) was justifying to me their decision not to Friend a mutual IRL friend that I’d Friended on FB, as if I might be hurt or they might be hurt and come to me and ask me why… oh, it’s all too complicated! It should be much simpler! But these things are so subjective, aren’t they? I have 1300+ people I won’t “disconnect” with on FB, even if we’re not really friends, but more accurately best described as acquaintances, because I figure there was a reason we connected and maybe we just haven’t really found it, yet. And I do periodically scan the list and quietly remove names I no longer recognize, that leave me scratching my head and wondering if I somehow accepted that Friend request in my sleep, and feeling vaguely bad that I don’t remember why.

      Yes, you and I have been friends since before I bought my car, back around 2005 or 2006, I think…? I never really remember how long it’s been. I can even do that old clapping game and yell out, “I think you stink!” and be 99% sure you’ll laugh instead of take offense. 😉 Good lord, we have in-jokes.

      I seem to recall Compuserve and GEnie and some of the early BBSes being like a weird community pool, but they were never on the global scale of Facebook. Facebook really OUGHT to be declared a country, and its users all have dual-citizenship, or something.

      I’ve never even thought of deleting your posts or comments; I welcome them. But you have never once expressed dissent in a way that wasn’t respectful and intelligent, and I welcome that kind of “debate” as well. I think some of the narrow-mindedness in the world is BECAUSE no one challenges some people to think about their own beliefs and opinions, or when they do, they do it in a way that provokes an immediately defensive, knee-jerk response. You’ve never done that to me, not once that I can recall.
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Thoughts on Technology, Community, Censorship, and FriendsMy Profile

      • Dave Michaud says:

        2012 has been a good year Holly, Mayan calendar and all.

        I’m always happy to be compared with a car on a time-line, I’m surprised you didn’t object to being compared with a fried egg sandwich. Everyone seems to have an online social tolerance curve anchored by cars, food or old rock bands. Mine is a tolerance curve where Balu is bad, Lobster Bisque is the tops and a fried egg sandwich is above middle of the road. I wouldn’t have the anchor of Balu if you hadn’t sent Roy as a friend request and described the gritty details of eating that stuff on your blog 🙂

        Friends are where a person finds them, appreciation is circonstance chanceuse 🙂

      • Hey, I would rather be a steady staple like fried egg sandwiches than a rare lobster bisque that occasionally smells like balut. 😉
        HollyJahangiri recently posted…The Next Big ThingMy Profile

  4. Lelala says:

    Just listen to the song “in the year 2525” from Zager & Evans and you may have new inspirations 😉

  5. Shane says:

    I Think a lot of the censorship is unnecessary these days, i am also a bit tired of the whole PC thing.

  6. Mitch Mitchell
    Twitter:
    says:

    First, why do I feel like I’ve read this post before somewhere and even commented on it?

    Of course, if I did I hope I respond the same way. I tend to believe that there’s not really free speech without consequences, and most people aren’t ready to live with the consequences, yet still want to utter stupid stuff. I actually challenged a guy on that one once; found out where he lived and told him I was coming to see him so he could spout his vitriol to me face to face. The punk threatened to call the police if I showed up, canceled his account and was never heard from again. And no, I didn’t feel bad one bit.

    Overall I’m a very genial guy; I think I’ve shown that over all these years online. But there are limits, and thus the dilemma from time to time. We do teach people how to treat us, and we treat them the same. When things go awry… well, these days I guess it’s a good thing I’m now in my 50’s instead of that angry guy in my 30’s who would take on a challenge.
    Mitch Mitchell recently posted…12 Things “I’m Just Sharing” Addressed In 2012My Profile

    • You’re thinking of my flowchart, Mitch. This is different; this post, instead of being inspired by an attempt to tolerate the hatefulness from the Right, was actually inspired by a very angry LIBERAL friend of mine who has a nasty tendency to take out his frustrations on my friends – including my LIBERAL friends! – now and then. I don’t get it, but I’m not going to apologize for another adult’s behavior. My friends don’t all have to be friends with each other – I understand and respect their decision to block EACH OTHER. I just hope they won’t block ME, as the conduit between them.

      I do believe in free speech. I’d prefer people aired their ugliness where I can hear it and judge them for it. I agree, “the punk” should have been willing and able to say whatever it was he said straight to your face. But I also think your “threat” (which may or may not have been a “threat” but which would certainly have been taken that way) would have an intimidating and chilling effect on his freedom of speech. I do wonder if he’d have been able to say whatever he was saying to you – face to face. That’s the thing about such ugliness – it festers. Sunlight may render it ridiculous and chase it off. Or it may illuminate the fact that the person saying it really is suffering from an appalling ignorance and lack of education. These things can be fixed. A truly hateful, willfully ignorant spirit can’t, always.

      We all judge each other – what we don’t get to do is stand in God’s shoes and condemn each other to Hell. Or take the law into our own hands and pass sentence in this life. But we can judge and I think that’s just fine – we can then make an INFORMED DECISION as to whether it’s worth trying to persuade them to think differently, to tolerate them, or to cut them out of OUR lives altogether. But that’s SPEECH – when it crosses over to behavior, we all have a right to defend ourselves or to call the law. Cyberstalking and cyberbullying are now crimes, thank goodness – the law is starting to catch up. Harassment and bullying have no place in a civil society. I think Fred Phelps and his crew skirt the boundaries of “free speech” and “harassment.” I’m all for calling them a “hate group” and removing their “church’s” tax free status. They can say what they like, but the WAY they say it is something I shouldn’t have to subsidize with my taxes, right?
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Choices, Choices: Food, Fun, and FitnessMy Profile

      • Mitch Mitchell
        Twitter:
        says:

        With the guy I called out, it wasn’t what he was saying but how he was saying it that I didn’t like. When I proved I knew where he was (I mentioned the name of the college he was going to and the dorm lol) he backed down like the coward he was. People think because they have a modicum of privacy online by hiding behind fake names that they can say whatever they want to say however they want to say it and be protected by the 1st Amendment. Thing is, it doesn’t say that; if it did, people wouldn’t be getting arrested for saying “bomb” in airports.

        I’m totally with you on Phelps. Then again, I think there’s lots of churches that skirt that law, along with other groups, and no politician has the guts to try to close those loopholes. Such is life.
        Mitch Mitchell recently posted…5 Things About Writing That You Might Never Think OfMy Profile

  7. I love the internet – and people who leave blog posts up.

    I didn’t read all the comments, sorry, so if someone said it already, that’s fine.

    I first started commenting on blogs, mainly the self-publishing ones, in the beginning of 2011. The book’s final revision was getting underway, and I had plans to start my own blog, and eventually I ended up posting a new scene every week until I was finished polishing, and I wanted to see how all this commenting worked.

    I used ABE as my ‘Name’ in those days, but fairly quickly realized that it would keep ME safe online, and from saying things I hadn’t thought out or that were mean, if I put my real name on my comments. So I switched, and I haven’t regretted it so far. My bio on my blog isn’t my whole life story, but there is personal stuff, and I’m okay with people knowing that much about me (the spouse and offspring are not involved, other than to mention that they exist).

    If my husband wanted people to know about him (he doesn’t), I’d encourage him to start his own.

    But it keeps it civil if you own up to your own words (there have been a few needing a bit of explanation, and the odd apology – I’m not perfect), and know they’ll be there forever.

    I’m good with that.
    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt recently posted…Resuming writing after hiatus depends on preparationMy Profile

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