A Friend recently approached me about a facebook kerfluffle:  SOMETHING had transpired, and SOMEONE had posted about it, with all their virtual friends piling on the anti-my-Friend bandwagon.  Turns out, I had inadvertently leapt on the pile. 

 Now granted, I didn’t bad-mouth anyone, but rather defended SOMEONE’s right to vent their feelings on facebook.  I am a writer, after all.  Free speech is kind of my stock-in-trade.

 However…

 My Friend was hurt by SOMEONE’s reaction, and by the dogpile of virtual friends.  Hurt enough that she spoke to me about it.  I felt awful.

 I hadn’t thought about the other side of the equation; the person being spoken about, who might read the post and all the subsequent comments and feel hurt, scared, or even threatened by it.  But here that person was, brave enough to say to my face, “That was me.”

 And therein lies the problem with technology.  It removes the human from the equation, reducing us to so many characters on a screen, along with a static, smiling headshot. 

 Technology often inadvertently does to us what our military attempts to do to the enemy during war time:  it dehumanizes us, making it OK to treat us as less than human. 

 Think about road rage:  in traffic on the highway, we become enraged when a car cuts us off.  Of course our logical mind understands that there is a human driving that car, but the logic doesn’t reach the muck of our subconscious, where our monkey brain lives and reacts with primal rage.  The human in the car becomes “that jerk” or worse, his identity merged with the metallic sheen of his vehicle, until he is far from human.  It enables people to perpetrate heinous acts against one another behind the wheel.

 This same dissociation is what enables us to speak so freely online.  After all, we don’t have to face the human we’re speaking to, see the reaction on their faces, listen to their immediate response to what we’re saying.  We type our words and send them out there into the void and go on happily about our day, not imagining that we’ve just lit the fuse on a load of dynamite.

 I have always tried to be careful in my electronic exchanges; it’s always seemed that they were prone to misunderstandings.  When I used to work full-time, I had a few trusted co-workers whom I would bounce particularly troublesome or difficult communications off of, to make sure that the tone was right and that no one would be offended.

 In the comfort or privacy of our own homes, with the “send,” “comment,” “reply” or “enter” buttons at our fingertips, we often don’t give ourselves the time to think before we let the words fly, hurtful or not.

 Personally, I try to let something potentially inflammatory sit before I respond, otherwise things are likely to escalate into flame wars.  The other thing I try to do is, as I read an e-mail or a comment or response, I try to imagine myself saying those words to another person, face to face.  If I know it’s something I would never say in person, then guess what?  It’s not something I should be saying electronically, either.

 People talk about technology, and how it connects people.  In many ways, it does.  I have “friends” all over the world, who I might never have “met” had it not been for the internet.  But regardless of how you know or communicate with someone, it’s always important to remember that at the end of all those chips, and silicon, bits and bytes, wires and signals, there is another human being reading the words that you write; a human being with their own lives and problems, feelings and emotions.  If you really want to connect with them, remember that, and treat them as such.

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