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Last week, I ran across this article from the Associated Press about how the anonymity (or perception of same) that we have on the Internet leads some people to say and do things they would never say or do in their “real life” relationships.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve discussed here before, but some of the responses to last week’s blog post (which I’ll quote – at least those that are fit for a family forum) brought that fact home again. Some people get downright mean when they’re communicating electronically, and it’s hard to believe that all of them act that way in their offline lives.

Now, this is by no means a universal thing. It seems as if being online often has an effect similar to imbibing alcohol. You know how some folks, when they drink, still act pretty much the way they do when they’re sober but a little more relaxed, while others get all happy and funny and still others turn vicious? Likewise, people are affected differently by the act of slipping into an online persona.

For instance, there’s a person I had known in the “real world” for many years and had never been at all close to. I found her loud and abrupt and often rude, avoided her socially whenever possible but stayed connected to her because of other mutual relationships. Then we found ourselves exchanging email – and the person she became in her written messages was like someone entirely different. The negatively I had come to expect from her in response to everything I said was gone. Her messages were polite and friendly and thoughtful, and for the first time, we become friends of a sort.

But I’ve seen the opposite happen too many times, watching in amazement as someone I had always liked turned into an online monster, flaming people left and right, using language I’d never heard them speak, taking offense at the slightest disagreement.

When I write on a controversial subject, I expect to get lots of replies from those who disagree with my opinions. And after many years at this, I expect that a certain number of those won’t be very nice about it. In fact, I know a lot of writers – and their publishers – who feel the more heated the responses, the better; it always means a higher hit count and for every reader who says “I’m unsubscribing because I think you’re an idiot,” three more start reading because after all, it’s human nature to crave a little spice now and then, both in our food and in our discussions.

In fact, quite a few media personalities of all political persuasions have built multi-million dollar careers by ranting and raving on every topic. Those who have become household names get lots of hate mail, but their books keep selling, their radio and TV shows keep getting top ratings, and the money keeps pouring in.

When they’re espousing ideas we don’t like, we think of them as hotheads. When their philosophies and ideologies match our own, we tend to see them as brave souls who “tell it like it is.” Abe Lincoln said you can’t please all the people all the time, but pleasing half the people and making the other half mad as heck seems to be a formula that works very well for those with thick skins and a penchant for fame and fortune.

Maybe one reason for the popularity of extremists is the very fact that most people don’t dare express themselves that strongly in their own everyday lives. Expressing every negative thought that crosses your mind tends to have a less than positive impact on career growth, marital happiness, budding friendships and other real life circumstances that are important to most of us. So traditionally, we’ve let the professional ranters speak for us.

The Internet has made it easier for ordinary folks to let their hair down and pull out all the stops and express all those secret, nasty feelings themselves. The phenomenon of “flaming” – launching personal attacks on others out of proportion to whatever the flamer is responding to – first gained a foothold in newsgroups and mailing lists. It’s carried over to blogs, where you don’t even have to give your opponents the opportunity to respond if you don’t want to. And on the ‘Net, you can say mean things without risking your reputation by using a “screen name” that gives no clue to your real identity.

But has the Internet really made people meaner and less civilized? There have always been times and places where people say cruel things (listen in to any group of teenagers discussing those outside their clique). Some people just aren’t very nice, in general. And some people who generally are nice get carried away with their emotions when they feel very passionately about a subject. I’m not so sure that, deep down, people are any meaner today than they were a few decades or centuries ago (after all, they often gunned one another down in the streets in the Old West, and look at all the beheadings and such in Medieval times). But the ‘Net has made it easier to do your dirty work more anonymously and to spread it to a wider audience.

What do you think? Are you surprised at the nastiness that sometimes comes out in online discussions? Do you say things in email that you wouldn’t say in person, or do you know others who seem to turn into a different person when communicating online? Do you think the Internet is causing us to become less civilized?

Deb Shinder