Just now, I did something horribly mean. I ignored a nice person on AIM that was having a delightful chat with me. And *BAM*, I ignored them, never to see a message from them again. I rebooted my computer and any and all traces of them were removed.
The saddest part of this all is that I didn’t mean to do it. My computer crashed after she first IMmed me, and when I brought a second computer up, the dialog that says “Do you want to accept a new message from ______?” appeared with a default of “NO”. I happened to just be hitting a carriage return at the precise moment the dialog appeared. PAF! She’s gone. Now I have no way to contact her and she, understandably, likely feels pretty miffed…rebuffed and rebuked even. Why do computers make it so easy to be mean by accident?
Just last week, I was playing a certain online game, and I said something cheeky – one of the people took it the wrong way and moved to slap me; but when I tried to indicate an apology and to “cancel” the slap, the game had my character slap the other back and get into a fight. This highly exacerbated an already delicate situation and quickly made me some online enemies.
Technology is a lubricant for social interaction; programs and telecommunications links make it easy for people to communicate around the world, instantaneously. Unfortunately, they often make it just as easy to communicate in a positive fashion as in a negative one.
The problem with this is that negative messages come across far more strongly than positive ones. You’ll remember someone who says “you are a loser” a lot longer than someone who says “you are nice”. But if in an imaginary user interface the two buttons were next to each other, iconified as a smiley and a frowny face, both equally easy to press, it’s a pretty fair bet that you’d accidentally send negative messages to people when you didn’t mean to do so.
In real life, we’ve got lots of natural reflexes that help us be kind, or at least appear kind. When people smile, we usually can’t help but smile. When they laugh, we find ourselves laughing. When someone look at you, you feel the desire to look, even if just for a moment, back in their eyes. These reflexes are not commuted online. Instead, when someone types a smiley, you have to actively type a smiley back – the absence of doing so may connote rudeness.
As consequence, online is perhaps by default a neutral medium, whereas real life is more of a positive medium. This difference makes it all the easier to interpret online actions as rude or even hostile when a similar conversation, had in person, would never have resulted in a similar outcome.
Or maybe online is worse than neutral; what if it is downright inherently cruel? Anyone who has experienced an IM friend suddenly disappearing or getting disconnected at “inopportune” moments will know what I’m talking about; it’s as if someone had just walked away from you as you were mid-sentence, or, in the latter case, slammed the door in your face.
You’d think that, taking both the human sensitivity to negativeness and the default meanness of online communication, that the tools would be made to make “friendly” the obvious default, so much so that cruelty would need special and mildly obscure menu items and keypresses and, when engaged, would pop up a little message saying “Are you sure you want to do this? It might be considered mean,” with NO as the default.