You May Be Right. 

(Or you may be crazy.)

The topic of bullying is pervasive right now. And rightly so — bullying of kids and adults, online and offline, is harmful. But there’s a related behavior that’s been flying under the radar, and it’s equally as harmful. We see it most prevalently on social media — Facebook, Twitter, comments on articles, and beyond. Sometimes it’s explicit and direct, but other times it’s subtler.

It’s righteousness.

Most of us produce some type of content — even if it’s just a Facebook status update — and a subset of us produce a lot of content. For the most part, we all are simply sharing, conversing, and maybe hoping to make a few people laugh.

Then you come across another breed — the person who, instead of seeing themselves as participants of this big, social dialogue, see themselves as the person who’s doing it right.

When righteous people instigate conversations or enter into discussions, they often preach about the right behavior. This implies there’s wrong behavior, and ultimately creates a gulf between them and everybody else. To me, this creates a lot of accusatory noise, and it’s smug and condescending.

When you combine their tone with the fact that so much meaning (intonation, emphasis, etc.) is lost in writing, and we make up tone when we read things, it’s easy to see how content can feel preachy, or even holier-than-thou.

I’m not talking about trolls or anonymous commenters. I’m talking about people I know, who aren’t bad people. But, online, they’ve decided that everyone should be subject to their opinion about how to behave. Not only have they given themselves permission to be judgmental, they act like they never needed that permission in the first place. They take their position for granted, and they think we should, too.

(I know I’m kind of doing that right now, in a way, too. But I hope I have a different tone.)

Personally, I struggle with how to deal with this kind of content in my feeds. And I wonder why it happens. I wonder if in the way that anonymity gives people permission to be rude (think: newspaper comments), the physical distance between people and their online followers and friends also gives them permission to judge. Maybe that distance gives them perceived space to stand on their soapbox and suggest that their standard is the way.

Acting righteously really does a number on how I perceive people. Many of us have been doing this for a good amount of time. As a whole, the internet — and social media in particular — is a rapidly growing pot of crazy, cloudy soup. Mores, rules, and conventions are still being established, so we’re all just making it up as we go along. I feel like every time we add to the internet — pictures, updates, blog posts — we’re creating our own stream in our own way. My stream can look however I want it to look because it only has to reflect who I am. It’s a reflection of my brand; my story.

But when you draw other people into your stream by judging them or questioning the way they’re doing something, you’re treading on potentially harmful ground. And ironically, it seems like many of the people who are loudest about the lack of kindness on the internet are also the most righteous. And, unfortunately, may not even see themselves as contributing to that part of the problem.

So, instead of complaining about all the people who aren’t being nice, or opining about the words we should and should not use, or announcing a social media detox, just lead by example. Just do your thing. But don’t expect the rest of us to do it your way too.

We make a lot of choices online every day — what sites to visit, when to check email, who to IM, and how to behave while we’re doing all of that. We choose to reply at length, or with brevity; we choose to be nice, or not. Just choose to be nice. Recognize that kindness and decency require us to make choices. Maybe you’re not being overtly cruel. But be mindful of your tone, the implications of your content, and how your words feel to other people.

We’re all just blokes on the internet trying to connect. And connections don’t happen from righteous places — we’re all flawed and we’re all mediocre in our own special ways. Humanity is somewhere in the middle, between a perfectly-worded caption for an idyllic picture and a gratuitous selfie with emoji-laden hashtags. Let’s do that.

*Photo: One Way Sign by David Amsler, used under the Creative Commons License Attribution 2.0 Generic.