Why do people say things online they would never say face-to-face?
While working as a graduate researcher at UConn, I was in middle school classrooms most of my day, helping teach online reading comprehension to adolescents. For those of you that work with adolescents, you know that there is a certain amount of “drama” associated with the lives of teens.
One event in particular has me perplexed to this day. I was chatting with three young women in the back of the room at the end of the day. They were scrolling through their Facebook feeds and commenting on some of the content and comments left there. Keep in mind this is over a decade ago, and Facebook was still relatively new. Please also keep in mind that these were 8th grade girls, so they should not even have Facebook accounts. But…I am an Internet researcher. :)
The students were talking about how they communicate with others on the platform, what they share, and how it forms a link in their social systems. One of the girls, who we’ll call Jacqueline, showed me a post about her that was shared by a friend, who we’ll call Sophia. I read the post, and it was relatively salacious and confrontational (IMHO). I asked Jacqueline if she was mad or upset about the post, given that it was directed to her. She indicated that they were friends, and the girl that sent the comment was in the next classroom.
I pushed a bit more and asked what would happen if Sophia said those things face-to-face with her, or even shared them in a note, or verbally with others. To that Jacqueline indicated that she would be mad if Sophia was “talking junk” and she would most likely fight her. To that, I indicated that Sophia had in fact said things about her, and was she concerned? Jacqueline said that she was not, because it was online and it wasn’t “real.” I was even more intrigued and pushed a bit more. Jacqueline indicated that if she were concerned about what Sophia shared…or if she was speaking like this often online…then she would confront her and ask if this was true, and that she felt this way. Only when this discussion happened in real life would it be considered real.
In real life
As an Internet researcher and educator I spend a lot of time trying to understand the ways in which we read, write, communicate, and socialize online and in-between. One of the challenges/opportunities in this work is understanding how our online interactions impact our offline actions and connections.
Across society, we’re seeing a growing distrust of systems and the “establishment.” We’re also seeing a growing separation of ideas, identities, and epistemologies as individuals connect (or disconnect) in online spaces. There are instances where individuals and groups are harassed, bullied, and threatened by others.
I’ve been wondering if all of this is really happening, or is it “make believe.” What I mean by this is that we’re starting to see some evidence that trolls and trolling behaviors in online spaces are (in some instances) the work of political, state, or guerilla groups. We also see bots, and automated “fake accounts” that swirl up and double/triple down on signals to create the perception of a story.
Finally, I wonder if there is really this much disagreement, distrust, and “lack of commonality” between individuals, or is it solely online? A recent post and research report suggests that these differences may solely exist online. Although the report is from a U.S. perspective and focuses on politics and social justice, it does make me wonder about whether or not these differences really exist.
Digital, familial connections
Much of this veil of uncertainty was lifted recently as we prepared for an incoming hurricane to hit our area. Things were closing down at the local and state level as the news reports and storm ramped up. My family was concerned as we cautiously watched the news reports. My Wife and I work in careers that requires that we interact with the public a lot. We also have positions that require that we attend to others throughout the days…and especially these events. Let’s just say that it was emotionally exhausting as we’re caring for others and doing our jobs, as we also try to think about our safety, and the safety of others.
One of the other things that we had to deal with was the phone calls and pleadings of family members that call to express concern, or check in with us. These phone calls can either be supportive and with a sense of concern, or they can be confrontational…with a sense of concern (perhaps). One family member regularly calls to express concern as they see these events incoming. These calls usually do not go well. They begin with questions about a “plan” to leave or deal with the event. Depending on the tone and tenor of those news, there are also comments about how we (my Wife and I) are stupid, and we’ll endanger our children. Most of these phone calls we can quickly defuse or let go to voicemail.
What struck me from this latest storm and communication from family/friends is when this communication starting appearing online. While we were preparing our home for the incoming storm, and trying to keep our children preoccupied…and keep our sanity…messages and comments started to pop up on Facebook, indirectly targeting us.
One of these comments in particular was meant to be an obituary for myself and my family. Given that the individual that shared this also had other family and friends in the supposed path of the storm, we wondered why this mention of our death was made on social media. The names were left blank as I’ve shown in the screenshot below.
Better to stay silent?
As I’ve mentioned in this post, there is a certain amount of emotional resilience and exhaustion that occurs as you prepare for, and deal with these events. My Wife and I have already lived through a “once in a lifetime” tornado, a couple “once in a lifetime” snow storms, a couple “once in a lifetime” hurricanes and floods. These events never get old, and they always include their fair share of anxiety and concern.
As we prepared to go to sleep the night before the storm was slated to hit our area, we finally had a quiet moment to reflect on the day’s events, and our plans for the storm…and if things got really bad. We also reflected on the eulogy that our family member had shared about us online. We talked through a series of possible responses, all of which we did not follow. At the end of series of events, the storm (thankfully) never hit our area, and we never confronted the family member that shared an obituary for us…and many others.
I’m left wondering why someone would choose to share content like this openly online. I’m wondering why an individual would chose to share this type of content about a friend or family member. I’m wondering if the person thought that others would see it…or if we would see it. I wonder what the intended reaction to this comment should have been.
In many ways, I felt like Jacqueline wondering if I should confront Sophia in the hallway.