Of politeness and consideration in the connected age

I’ve quit several online forums in recent months, and lately I’ve been noticing a lot of Facebook wars–discussions that just got out of hand too fast. All of this makes me extremely nostalgic for the days of Commodore 64s and 128s, dialup modems, and hobbyist-run BBSs. It was hopelessly primitive compared to what we have today, but for the most part it was polite, and it certainly felt more like community.

What happened?

In the 1980s and even the early 1990s, computer adoption wasn’t extremely widespread. Today you can pick up a computer for $50 if you know where to look and get online with it. But 20 years ago, getting a computer took serious enough money that you needed to have some reason to be doing it.

BBSing whittled the subculture down some more–not everyone had a modem in those days. And the communities that formed around BBSs tended to be segregated by computer type–you had Commodore hangouts, Apple hangouts, IBM hangouts, and Atari hangouts. It was all local, because few wanted to pay the high long distance bills. Most of the out-of-towners were phone phreaking.

So everyone had a few things in common: From the same area, owned the same computer, educated and/or of higher than average intelligence, and wealthy enough to be able to own a computer in the first place. And nothing builds friendships faster than sharing. Sharing computer programs was a big element of the community.

When fights did erupt, there was considerable cooling off time. Only one person could dial in at a time, so saying something flip could take serious effort–dialing and re-dialing until the line wasn’t busy–and eventually you might decide it just wasn’t worth it if you didn’t get through right away.

That’s a big difference from today. Today you just start typing, and nothing forces anyone to consider any consequences. If you have a smartphone, you don’t even have to be home. When discussions get heated, everyone can pile on at once and say things in the heat of the moment, and things get out of hand really fast. And if one or more participants have had too much to drink, it gets even further out of hand even faster. That didn’t happen as often 20 years ago because sometimes people couldn’t afford both a computer and beer.

It’s not local anymore either. Today, the reach is global. I can talk to my cousin in Germany more easily than I can talk to my next-door neighbor. (Maybe my next-door neighbor should friend me so we’d talk more.) That means I can talk to the cousin I thought I’d never meet, which is great. The downside is that we become “friends” with people we really have only superficial things in common with and really don’t know and understand all that well.

Or maybe we do know our friends pretty well, but that doesn’t mean our other friends know each other at all. I have friends from my train habit, friends from work, friends from church, and friends from school. In some cases, the only thing they have in common is that they know me.

And let’s face it: It’s difficult for people who are too different to relate to each other. I had dinner a few months ago with some cousins who grew up in Cleveland. I learned pretty quickly that I know nothing about life in the Rust Belt. When they started talking about Cleveland, I didn’t understand half of what they were talking about.

And if my pet cause doesn’t solve a problem they’re facing, I can’t expect them to get as excited about that as I am.

We tend to expect all of our friends to agree with us, and to agree with each other, and that’s just not realistic. This has always been true, but we’re a lot more aware of it now that we’re always connected. We find out much sooner that we don’t know our friends as well as we thought we did.

Sometimes we’re disappointed that they weren’t what we imagined them to be. Ignorance was bliss back when we didn’t know one another so well, and we could imagine them to be whatever we wanted them to be.

And I think sometimes we just try to juggle too many relationships. Friends on Facebook are a status symbol, and sometimes people will try to juggle hundreds. That’s a recipe for arguments–essentially, inviting hundreds of people who probably don’t know each other into our living rooms.

In our real families, certain rules develop over the years. We learn what upsets certain people, and avoid those things. But all that goes out the window online, because nobody knows any of those rules.

But until we reconsider who our friends are, and perhaps lower our expectations of their ability to get along perfectly with one another, the situation will probably get worse before it gets better.

Answering the problem is difficult because there’s no single answer to it. Part of the answer is to reconsider who our friends are, and perhaps pare things down a bit. A big part of the answer is to just step away for a minute and let life happen. Let yourself be interrupted. It gives you time to reconsider what you were going to say. And when time finally allows a response, try to remember the other person may have a valid reason for thinking differently, as hard as that may be. In light of that, challenge the idea, not the person. And when someone is challenging your idea, try not to take it personally.

Things certainly were a lot simpler when my buddies and I were dialing into the M&M Factory BBS in 1989.

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