Monday, January 11, 2016


I have a bad habit of arguing with people on Facebook sometimes. It's not a good use of my time, but last year I wasn't using this blog as an outlet, so instead most of my writing ended up in the ethereal word of Facebook comments. In any case, recently in one of those conversations a friend-of-a-friend told me to never take anything anyone says on the Internet seriously.

This comment opened my eyes once again to the fact that many people, even (perhaps especially) people who spend a lot of time on the Internet, don't really see the Internet as a part of reality. So, today I'd like to talk about why that mindset is wrong.

I should probably start with the obvious: my life would be entirely different right now if I had never taken anything anyone said on the Internet seriously. Growing up on the Internet, I had the chance to talk to many people and experience things I never would have otherwise. By making friends on the Internet and being sincere, I helped to start a company with people all over the country. Through that, I got an incredible job, visited fascinating places, met even more interesting people, and met the woman I'll be marrying next month. My Internet life has had a major impact on my real life, and I don't think I'm unique in that regard.

So, why don't people think the Internet is reality? I'm not certain, but I think it starts early on.

For a long time now, some people have been bemoaning the fact that people are spending so much of their time on phones. "People used to talk to each other!" they say. And perhaps it's true: on a subway, for instance, before everyone had a smartphone, you might have struck up a conversation with the person next to you in order to pass the time. But, I don't think that's what most people did. I think most people occupied themselves in other ways: reading the newspaper or a book, for instance. Or, if they didn't have anything else to occupy them, they might just keep their heads down and hope no weird strangers tried to talk to them.

Regardless, the "people used to talk to each other!" crowd seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding about what people are doing on their phones. In many ways, people on their smartphones are likely being far more communicative than they were a generation ago: on their phone they're texting friends, engaging in social media conversations, or just sharing their thoughts and experiences to their friends via Twitter or something. Otherwise, they might just be reading articles or playing games, not much different than people who used to spend time reading the newspaper or solving crossword puzzles.

Still, though, there's a movement among parents and schools to "limit screen time," as if spending time on computers and phones is a waste of time and possibly dangerous. And perhaps that's not entirely wrong, as I've certainly wasted a lot of time compulsively checking social media. Still, engaging online seems to me like a somewhat healthier habit than last generation's "screen time," which was mostly just sitting and watching television all day. I'm certainly not going to argue against the merits of spending time outside and/or communicating with people verbally, though.

My concern is that by telling kids that the Internet is not a source of real communication, that it's basically a game, it causes people to treat it that way. The parents' contempt for people who take the Internet seriously influences their children, and they grow up with contempt for people who take the Internet seriously as well.

It seems to me like a lot of people still think of the Internet as a sort of game. The troll subculture especially seems to enjoy antagonizing people on the Internet, not knowing or caring what real-world effects their trolling has on their victims. Internet harassment is a serious problem today, though, and until law enforcement figures out a way to start enforcing real-world repercussions for the very real damage such harassment causes, it's going to continue to seem like a game.

As it is, we're still in a world of transition. The idea of the digital world being as real as the physical world will take some time for humanity as a whole to really comprehend, and I foresee several more decades of growing pains as we discover and face new challenges that this mix of digital and physical life presents us. I think we can handle these challenges, though, and I think our first step is to take the things people say on the Internet as seriously as if they said them in the real world.

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