Last year, I made a social faux pax. I decided to talk to a person I considered a friend about a relationship decision I thought they were considering. I didn't know at the time I was was badly misinformed about what was actually going on. I said something I should have kept to myself, something I never would have said if I had known what was really going on.
I told my friend to exercise caution in a relationship I thought was under consideration. I thought my experience with the object of my friend's affection was important. I wanted my friend to have the benefit of my input when weighing this decision. Both people were fresh out of long-term relationships. You can read my posts at the time earlier in this blog
The relationship I thought was merely under consideration was actually well underway at this time. If I had known this I would have offered no more than a toast to their happy future together. My opinions and information about their decision to get involved with each other at that time were totally irrelevant.
The two people involved in the relationship were both members of my online community. Instead of taking me aside and telling me that this horse was long out of the barn, my blunder was used as a weapon against me in a vicious cyber-bulling episode. It was very, very painful. I left the online group with whom I had been associated for 8 years. Many, many people vilified me online with lies and outrage.
I went from a situation in which my online social life was rich and rewarding to a situation reminiscent of the "You have zero friends" episode of South Park (Season 14, episode 4). I not only became a pariah, but being associated with me became a social liability for other people. I was portrayed as a social reject who went around trying to destroy other people's relationships because I have none of my own.
On one hand, I was right. The person I was warning my friend about very effectively and dramatically made my point for me. The cyber-bullying and scapegoating validated my concerns about this person's emotional maturity and character. While I am certain the caution I urged for my friend will be validated in the future, that's scant satisfaction. It's no fun predicting disasters, even when you're right.
What has happened since has surprised me.
A year later people are still blocking me and associating with the bullies. They have convinced a group of people I considered thoughtful and well-meaning friends that I am someone to be avoided. It touches my personal non-online life today. I have had to let go of a business opportunity and change my living situation because of all this.
My online life now is an exercise in reading the posts of people who don't know me but with whom I share an interest. My online life is lonely and largely unreciprocated. It as if no one is listening to me.
The bullies won because I was unwilling to defend myself online. I felt that doing so would compel me to reveal information about these people which they had given me in confidence which would embarrass them.
My professional life as a hospice nurse is largely about keeping confidences. Even though this was a purely personal matter, I don't make distinctions ethically along those lines. If I don't do it, I don't do it.....anywhere, with anyone.
More simply, I wasn't going to do to them what they were doing to me.
I thought the other people in my online community would recognize this restraint for what it was. They didn't. People don't pay that much attention online, they dissociate from the emotional bonds there, pretending they aren't "real" because it comes to them via pixels on a screen.
So, that's what online social networking really can be. It is like going to the Mall of relationships. Everything is designed to appeal to preferences and offer opportunity for avoiding aversions. It can give rise to mistakes like confusing a stripper with a girlfriend, or confusing a professional subordinate's deference with respect.
This doesn't mean that nothing real ever happens there, clearly it does. My pain and loss over the last year were very real to me. I hurt.
But, I don't think any of this would have happened in the way it did if we had all been in a room together. There is social communication that goes one when you encounter someone in physical space that is missing from online interactions. We make-up that information instead of noticing that it is missing, and we draw upon our own limited view for that information. We don't notice that part of the information we are looking at is reflection in an emotional mirror. We think those aspects are part of that other person.
This is why, even though I dearly miss my online community, I am not going to rebuild it. I will still use social networking sites, they are very useful in many ways, I won't be involved with my online associates as if I knew them. When I see someone's name and picture, I will be reminding myself that some unusually large part of what I see there as a human being are really aspects of my own mind.
I am kind, generous and wise. I saw these qualities reflected in my online friends and I acted according to that. That was a mistake I won't be repeating. Online information is only what they want me to see, which makes it a scene in the script for their lives they are writing online. While that is interesting in and of itself, but it's not the same as seeing and talking to someone in person.
Online, I only see what they want me to see. In person, much more information is available, and it can't all be filtered and vetted for consumption by others.
For this reason, slowly, over the future, I will be ending my associations in social networks with people who do not use their real names online. I may still be friends with people who do this otherwise, but they won't be in my Google+ circles, in my Twitter timeline, or online "friends" in Facebook.
I understand why people use handles, and many of those reasons are not only harmless but also have rational justifications. I have no problem with the practice in general, but I'm not going to do it, and I am not going to associate in social networks with people who do. I will stay in touch with those people online in other ways, probably e-mail.
In short, my experiment with social networking as a new way to connect with people in distant lands is over. I am struck by the fact that the big lesson here is precisely the same message I was trying to give to my friend when all this happened.
People are different online. Be careful.