HUNTSVILLE — A man walks up to a man who had been singing in a crowded building with his guitar and yells, “You are a terrible musician and should go kill yourself!” Most onlookers would be off-put by the encounter and take steps to separate the man from the musician. Now digitize it.
That’s essentially what happens every day, every hour somewhere on the internet and very few would normally react to the man. It seems as though manners and decorum are secondary to the goal of an uninhibited opinion from its author, despite how it may impact another person.
There are very, very few social rules that stretch across every website. Most are dependent on the type of users that frequent the site. Facebook is a relatively tame social environment compared to comment sections on news sites and sharing-sites like Reddit, and especially 4Chan (aka the dark side of the internet).
During the George Zimmerman trial and after, teens and young adults began posting pictures using the hashtag #Trayvoning. The pictures posted were of themselves mocking the position of the dead corpse of Trayvon Martin, sprawled out on their stomach with Skittles in one hand and a tea in the other.
Now, unlike television that has the most legal restrictions, the internet is the polar opposite. There are few regulations that say what is and is not legally acceptable to put online. Socially, its unlikely 20 years ago an average teen would walk into a building and openly mock a dead person in such a crude way. Although it’s still considered wrong, they’ll still be able to get jobs and won’t have a bad reputation as a result.
The internet has either caused a younger generation to become emotionally disconnected, or just gave a voice to a minority of individuals that would otherwise have been ignored.
It’s possible that growing up in the rise of the internet and the current youth, they became accustom to insensitive and incredibly hurtful messages. They are no longer aware that what was once controversial is no longer so. It’s now become funny and commended behavior. That may be why so much hate is exposed on otherwise innocent content.
The other possible reason for this could be that this culture always existed and the internet gave them a place to craft their message.
The likelihood is that a combination of both is probably responsible for the level of behavior that would be considered inappropriate within an in-person conversation. The insensitives, as I am designating them, that existed prior to the internet went online. A growing generation completely plugged-in saw the behavior and considered it to be the norm for the web.
When Glee star Cory Monteith died of a drug overdose in his Canadian hotel room, there was an outpouring of support from teen and tween fans. But the other half of the internet chimed in saying, “and that’s what you missed on Glee,” mocking his death by relating it to the show’s famous opening segment.
Now, Trayvoning and celebrity mocking (even in death) may be physically harmless to anyone and won’t have any real lasting negative impacts. Martin and Monteith’s friends and family are probably incredibly abject to the trend, but aren’t directly targeted by this as bullying.
It’s unlike the most high-profile cyber-bullying victim Tyler Clementi, who leapt off the side of a bridge because his roommate secretly filmed him engaged in sexual activity with another male. Or Ryan Halligan, who hung himself in 2003 while his father was on business. Several classmates started a rumor that Halligan was gay that led to being physically assaulted at school, and then online in social networks when he was at home. It’s an inescapable nightmare.
That extreme level of emotionally-disconnected behavior is a deterrent to open discussion in a time where there are many problems that need addressing. Though in the long-run, the regular level of insensitivity for internet users will be more of a distraction than destructive.
However, a little emotional insensitivity does have its uses despite the negatives that go along.
Many of my friends grew up in censored households, those that wouldn’t let their children express their own opinion because it either conflicted with the parents’ ideas or those that never listen and gave feedback to the child’s thoughts. Vast emotional sensitivity like in the 1950’s and prior left opinions out of the public normally and was a private matter entirely.
Historically, disconnecting from strict social and emotional rules that inundate the last 400 years has given rise to a more culturally diverse and opinionated society that can actually have a public forum to spread their ideas and get feedback. My personal dealings with social media and internet culture tells me that this may have helped my generation and younger be more acutely aware of the world around them than the older generation knows.
Yes there is an insane amount of entertainment news that this generation likes, but younger and younger men and women are becoming activists for ideas they believe in. The Occupy Wall Street movement was largely made up of adults in their 20’s. The democratization of Middle East and North African countries owes a great deal to the use of Twitter and YouTube by the 20 to 30 age group.
This paradigm shift is reflected in the more culturally accepting younger generations. That is undeniable. Regardless of your opinion, the younger generations are now by-and-large championing LGBT rights, racial civil rights, and the rights of women. It signals ideology rather than demographics are more important to them.
In short, the internet is a safe place to share ideas and get feedback. But many times an unrestricted opinion isn’t tolerated or expected because of our previous social training. That makes it also a dangerous place, where individuals can feel emotionally overburdened by the often razor-sharp teeth the internet grins back.
It’s important to learn the few rules of engagement that come with the electronic territory, but that comes with hands-on experience. Sink or swim, we’ll all get bitten. It’s up to the individual to decide how bad it hurt.