Something strange happened to me this week.
I was recognized on the street for something I had written.
Now, I want to clear up a few things before I proceed any further.
The “strangeness” of this encounter wasn’t down to the individual, who was thoroughly pleasant and kind. Nor was it down to uniqueness; obviously every moment in life is unique, but what I mean is that I’ve had people stop me on the street before, including for things I’ve written (and yes, sometimes it is terrifying).
No, the reason this encounter felt strange was because amidst this pandemic weirdness, I’ve felt, as many undoubtedly have, a certain disconnectedness from the world around me.
I’m lucky enough to now be in a job where I’m permitted to come into the workplace, so that’s at least given me a sense of routine and I (usually) remember to put on pants and do human things like trim my nose hairs or have the odd shower from time to time.
Still, it’s been hard to connect on a human level to faceless avatars on the interwebs.
Online dating is practically a no-go for me; I’ve nearly regressed in the digital evolutionary chain to the days of ICQ and asking for people’s a/s/l. I’ve ghosted on people as much as I’ve been ghosted on, to the point where I could start an app called “dating cemetery,” and it would be both a clever play on words and truth in advertising for my love life.
On Twitter or Facebook, it’s become difficult to see the people there as fully three-dimensional humans. They come off as well-programmed AIs in a video game where the goal is to make people “Like” me (really, really LIKE me). And the worst part is there’s no Game Genie for social media.
But this one little encounter — and again, I want to emphasize that it was little; it wasn’t like this person and I exchanged blood types or anything — was enough to knock me upside the head with my pandemic-driven anti-social tendencies.
I think what we’re forgetting, more and more, is that there really are PEOPLE behind those online profiles. Our empathy is being degraded like so much corrupted data.
My personal encounter was an important moment for me to realize that the things I write online are read by humans in the meat space.
I have no delusions. Ford on Fridays has a loyal readership of about 400 people, and some of those clicks are likely re-blogs from Indian-based spam sites.
But that’s kind of the point. Even a tiny Tim like me can have an impact.
It might seem conceited, but we can actually apply certain immutable laws of nature to the things we say online.
To paraphrase Newton: for every action, there is a reaction.
It’s not a matter of being important, or famous. It’s a matter of recognizing that in a world of global media, the things we do and say can make some ripples.
In that vein, you have to ask yourself: in a time of immense suffering, do you want to make someone’s day just a little bit more worse?
You don’t have to be hypervigilant. You don’t have to worry that the tweet you send online could lead to a person on the street confronting you with a crowbar.
But it’s worth thinking about translating the ways we speak out on the street into the ways we speak out on the web.
And thinking of the person who’s listening.