Saturday, April 08, 2006

Should I Stay, or Should I Go Now?

A week or so ago, some ugliness erupted in a forum on which I’ve participated, between two online friends I’ve had for some years. More disturbing, they’ve been friends themselves for some years. I was right in the middle of the whole conversation. In fact, I posted right in the middle of the whole conversation - a desperate call for some moderation that went pretty much ignored. I saw both before- and after- edited (and deleted) posts. Both sides got extremely ugly with each other. I know which post triggered the barrage (now deleted), and I know all that was said from the start to the finish. I don't hold either person to blame for "starting it" or for "finishing it". What I am concerned about is how the middle went down.

This really troubles me. Maybe this kind of thing happens between meat-friends and I'm just blissfully unaware of it. I've seen friends fight in person, but there are lines that don't get crossed, and there is room for apology afterward, if the friendship is valued. In my admittedly-limited world, it generally is and it survives.

But I see things fly out of all proportion in web fora all the time - there is serious difficulty in navigating the written word and the emotional flatness of the medium. This is a known fact. The thing is, in my perception, these two friends of mine have been very close friends for years. The kind of friendship I envy and crave, to be baldly honest. When I have that kind of friendship, I feel it's really important to me to protect it, and most importantly, to give someone the benefit of the doubt and maybe a “You said what? That hurt me! Care to explain?!” No one ever hurts us as much as those we care about - no one else has the weaponry - but those who care about us make every effort to heal the pain they cause.

In the emotionally flat world of the written word, I feel it’s extremely important not to get out the heaviest artillery you can muster and hurt, and hurt, and hurt someone every way you can. When someone does this in writing, there is no emotional temperance, no “this hurts me as much as it does you”, no visible tears, no shocked lip, no seeing the face of your victim at all. I understand the damage done is probably permanent in this case. If I ever really want to annihilate someone emotionally, I think we’ve learned there’s no substitute for doing it in writing.

And I don’t want that to happen to me. I love all of my friends on DwS, Peoplesforum... But I have to face that some people have the goods on me at this point, and some day, I may be the person who misunderstood someone’s post and said something stupid. Or posted something that came across as insensitive. And I could be really in for some big pain if someone gets out the big guns.

It's not the people so much, it’s the medium. I don't think people know when to stop in writing. When to walk away and dial the phone. When to take it off line.

It's got me not trusting what I thought I had very much, and thinking that I’'ve been fooling myself in a lot of ways. That these online communities may be nothing but houses of cards, sustained and built of the quick and sometimes easy intimacy bred of a certain anonymity. Fraught with all the vulnerability that any intimacy can bring. But so delicate, and so endangered from the wrong word, the poorly chosen jest, the angry post. So fragile.

You have no idea if there are tears in my eyes or a smile on my face as I write this. It’s open to interpretation. And that’s a fear I'm finding I must face before I can commit to staying around. I've primarily withdrawn from my main group right now, but that’s just because it’s the community I feel closest to. But I have my doubts about all of it, honestly.

I'm not sure yet what I'm going to do. What would you do? I’ve been in kind of a holding pattern for a week or so – I’ve really been too busy this week to make a decision. One of the participants has not been seen online since the argument, the other is a forum host, and has been acting pretty much like nothing has happened. This weekend was my self-imposed deadline to get on with things – either as a full participant again, or walking away for a few weeks, months…maybe ever…


Grouchbutt said...

Dude, the line to kick the ass of anybody who is ever mean to you starts behind me.

I don't know what advice to give you. If you still enjoy the forums, and they provide some kind of positive influence in your life, then stay with them. Don't let this fight intimidate you, or keep you from maintaining friendships and connections. But if you think you've outgrown it, then move on. It is sad to realize that people we're close to aren't ready, willing or able to stay on the same path we're on.

I think I'm starting to project my own situation onto yours, so I'll stop there.

callën aléssandro said...

yey!!! you're back.

julie beth said...

but randy, i'll miss yoU! i already do, and i haven't even been posting much lately...for one thing, i've been busy, and for another, i'm also freaked out in a similar manner. *sigh* i have no answers, other than please don't go away.

at least you have to keep blogging so we won't lose touch and i'll still have access to my online scooter posse and your recipes. :)

MaryEllen said...

Well, I feel really guilty now. Not about what happened, but about the fallout. Anyway, I have a couple of points to make. One of them is that I do think, in certain circumstances, that involvement in an online community *can* give one a false sense of intimacy and friendship. But, I hasten to add, not always. It depends on so many things.

The second is that I think that interactions online have to be considered in terms of who the participants are. Most people who are active in online communities are more than aware of the limitations and constraints of communicating entirely through the written word, and are quite skilled in communicating that way *and* in interpreting what others say. Which means, that when someone does post something hurtful, it is deliberate. That's not to say that people don't lash out, that people don't react thoughtlessly, etc. - just that it is no more likely to happen online than in face to face life. Someone says something hurtful, someone else reacts with pain and anger, the argument escalates - it's the same as the path of an argument face to face.

One of the big differences, however, is that there are more options for escalation online than in person. There is an inequity of power, for one thing. A thread host has power to throw someone out of the community, and that's just not an option in face to face life. Conversely, a person in the online world has to option to walk away completely, with no worries of running into the other person at the post office. That means that with online arguments, it is easier to escalate to a position where there is no going back - because there are no real consequences, none of the social approbation or pressures that work in face to face life come to bear, so there is no social reason to keep a friendship intact for the sake of the larger group. You can wipe someone from your life with a completeness that is very hard to accomplish in face to face life.

And lastly, all that said, you also have to realize that when a fight erupts online, it may be only the tip of the iceberg. There may be a lot of history, a lot of interactions or issues that have played out in other places (either online or in person) that have led to this. It may be that there have been problems simmering under the surface for a long time, that have suddenly come to a head on a relatively innocuous issue. Moreso than in face to face life, it is likely that you don't have the entire story.