I’m sure this isn’t a novel observation, but I am often struck by how differently people interact online and in person. Though people are capable of both shocking cruelty and viciousness and amazing generosity and kindness, in general face-to-face interactions are guided and moderated by social norms and mores, some of which are purely arbitrary, but many of which make such interactions go more smoothly and painlessly. While America is in general the land of instant intimacy, this phenomenon seems even more pronounced in the online world.
Online, people shed their inhibitions in good ways and in bad—they let go of their defenses, but also of their restraints. Super-ego is shunted aside, and id and ego reign. The anonymity (even if one is using one’s real name, no one sees one’s face) and distance of online interactions allow people to reveal themselves, their strengths and vulnerabilities, their virtues and their flaws, in ways they would never do in person, at least not so quickly and so eagerly. These virtual intimacies sometimes seem to compensate for intimacies missing in people’s daily lives, which tend to be highly routinized and even ritualized. People often have little opportunity to show what they consider to be their true selves in their day-to-day lives, and seize the chance to do so online.
The way that people almost automatically address one by one’s first name in online interactions is one example of this kind of pseudo-intimacy. I find it disconcerting to be so addressed by total strangers, nor do I feel comfortable so addressing strangers myself. While writing “Mr. X” and “Ms. Y” is a bit stiff, I prefer at least to address people by their full names, acknowledging that we are not intimates (at least not yet) and that a certain level of familiarity can feel intrusive when assumed by people who don’t know one another.
I don’t mean to be merely critical. I have had wonderful online interactions with people I would otherwise never have been in contact with, of whose existence I would never have known. And I’ve had many (often fleeting) occasions of soul-sharing with people I’ve corresponded with online but never met, most of whom I probably never will meet. It’s similar to the way one can reveal oneself to someone one meets in a particular situation knowing that you will never meet again: the circumscribed nature of the interaction provides a space of safety, the freedom to open up, precisely because there are no repercussions.
Perhaps because I am both someone who is a prominent figure in the poetry world and someone who seems approachable, I often hear from people who pour out their hearts to me, sharing their life stories with their first or second messages. I’m touched that people feel that they can open up to me in this way, though there’s also something odd about becoming a stranger’s confidant.
Unfortunately, the presumption of intimacy and familiarity about which I’m writing often turns into presumptuousness: the virtues of online interaction are the converse of the drawbacks. People sometimes assume not just that they know one (even that they know one better than one knows oneself), but that they can judge and even lecture one not just about one’s ideas (which are part of the public sphere and as such are always open to challenge and reasoned debate), but about one’s life and one’s personality. In this process, people frequently confuse debate and disagreement with personal attack, taking disagreement as personal attack and personal attack as reasoned disagreement.
The same lack of repercussions that allows people to open themselves up in ways they would not do in real life also lets them behave badly online in ways that (I hope) they would never do or get away with in face-to-face interactions, which have both immediate and long-term consequences. Sometimes the virtuality of the online world makes us forget that we are human beings dealing with other human beings, who have both minds and feelings.
Poet and editor Reginald Shepherd was born in New York City in 1963 and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a BA from Bennington College and studied at Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first collection, Some Are Drowning (1994), won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in...