Private lives

By Chuck Sigars | Oct 16, 2013

“I think probably 85 percent of the people I interact with on the Internet are jerks,” he said, all seriousness, locking eyes with me, making his point.

Full disclosure: He did not use the word “jerks.” He used another word, a more descriptive one that I won’t share because (a) I’m not quite sure of the authoritative spelling, and (b) there’s no way it would be printed in this newspaper, anyway. But jerk will do.

More disclosure: The speaker was my son, a young man whose exposure to Internet jerks is limited to his interests and by his age. He’s probably not reading the comments section of a random New York Times article.

Like many people his age, he’s grown up in this world of filterless free speech, immersed enough since childhood that I’m actually surprised he had an opinion, rather than a shoulder shrug.

But he’s seen a lot in his 20-something years, and he’s getting weary of jerks. He also knows why they exist.

He shook his head when I cynically suggested that maybe 85 percent of humanity consisted of jerks. “Anonymity,” he said.

This is an old idea, of course, from the prehistoric days of the Internet, and goes much further back than that. There are plenty of psychological studies that seem to demonstrate that, stripped of our identities, we’re capable of much jerkiness, and worse.

In fact, what we might be capable of saying or even doing if we knew, completely and absolutely, that we would never be identified or face consequences isn’t pleasant to think about.

It makes good behavior seem tenuous, enforced by norms that are observed by most people because they themselves are being observed. What would you do if no one was watching? It’s a big question.

We decided, my son and I, that it feels as though every stray thought, every bad idea, every horrible thing anybody ever considered saying aloud but didn’t, somehow didn’t disappear but just floated out of our souls and went to live on the Internet.

If laws and religion are humanity’s Super-Ego, then the internet is our Id. That’s where the bad stuff comes out to play.

What interested me about this discussion is how far we’ve come, actually. In the early days of online interaction, which I was part of, it was expected that we’d remain anonymous.

Usernames were often assigned as a series of random numbers and letters, or else we picked nicknames that maybe represented who we were or maybe who we wanted to pretend to be.

No one was expected to use their real name; good grief, who would do that? It took all the fun out of it.

But that was then. We’ve all become branded, or at least many of us have, and for benign and practical reasons.

Jane.Doe@somemail.com is the obvious choice for Ms. Doe, easy to remember and innocuous on a business card, as opposed to, say, hotnsaucymama@woohoo.com.

Owning our online identities has become accepted behavior, and to many of us those cute nicknames seem quaint, relics of another era, and mostly used by trolls to hide behind. We are who we are.

I’m not suggesting this is a good thing. I’m just saying it’s reality, and it’s forever. If we know anything about the Internet, and the way it’s changed our lives over the past couple of decades, it’s that nothing will ever go away. We had fair warning, too.

And as Twitter goes public, and Google and Facebook change even more policies, we can imagine a very near future in which our use of the “like” button might place our pictures next to products, de facto endorsements that are perfectly legal.

You did read that end-user license license agreement, right?

For many of us, this doesn’t matter. We don’t leave product reviews, we rarely post anything on Facebook, we don’t do Twitter or Instagram, we don’t write letters to the editor or leave comments.

If the good folks at Amazon track the pages we view, hoping to sell us more stuff, we might just accept it as a convenience, or else stay away.

But we’re adults, making our own decisions. Suddenly, I have a new point of view.

For those of you following my story, obviously the first time in recorded history that someone has been about to become a grandparent, I offer some closure.

My grandson was born last week, healthy and doing well, as are his parents. Many pictures have been passed along, and I believe I’m being objective when I say that this child appears to be perfect.

But there are no photos of him online, and his grandparents are currently barred from posting any.

Eventually, sure, but his parents have been around the block once or twice, and they’re well aware of the world we live in. With luck and grace, this kid will be allowed to grow up without images of him serving as trotlines for consumers.

He’s been born into a world in which personal privacy has become optional, not the default, and harder to protect, but with guidance and new tools, I have hope that he can live his life without relentless documentation or exploitation.

I’m grateful for technology. I enjoy social media. I’m a professional public sharer, and I make my own decisions.

I just know what our world looks like, and how dangerous it can be, and how 85 percent of the people out there just might be jerks.

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