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Virtual Virtue: Your Online Self

The internet is one place where you can find someone willing to say just about anything. In a way, that has lead to a flood of some of the most frank information one could ever get (which can be a good thing). But log on to just about any forum or chat room that isn't strictly moderated and you'll find some of the worst vitriol out there - generally far worse than anything you'd see exchanged between people face to face.

No harm no foul right? After all, it's much easier for people to be direct and up front when they don't have a real identity and, perhaps more importantly, when the other person can't punch you in the face!

I have been posting on this forum or that for several years now, and after a time I noticed myself behaving this way. Actually, it was other people's reaction to me that I noticed. I would post something, fairly straightforward and not meaning to be overtly hostile. But then I'd be taken aback by the response: as if I were just this incredible jerk. "Strange" I thought. No one has ever thought of me as a bad person in my real life, and I generally get along with people very well. Then I thought that maybe this jerk on the forum isn't thought of as a jerk by his friends and family either. What's going on?

So I started to really think about what I was saying, and how I was saying it when I would post online. I found that I had indeed become something I wasn't in real life, and I didn't like that person much. After a nasty exchange with another person I would think, "Well, no big deal. I don't even know that person and will never have to interact with them again." But after finding myself dwelling on it repeatedly for an entire evening I had to start wondering if maybe it was a big deal.

Whenever we respond to something we disagree with online, it is so easy to snap back with an overt harshness that we would never use in real life. It's also easy to forget that there's another person on the other end of that computer. As moral agents, it is our responsibility to spread good in the world, and that includes through the internet. Furthermore, what good is accomplished by angering someone you disagree with? Will this make them listen to your point?

So I began to ask myself, "What if I decided to be more civil and considerate in my virtual life?" What if I treated others like I would a friend or family online? What if in debates I tried to be as sensitive as possible to the concerns and ego of the other poster/chatter? What if I took special care that I didn't hurt feelings or make people feel stupid in the wording of my responses?

I was thrilled with the results. It took a surprisingly short time to begin to reach a real understanding with others online, and for them to begin listening to me because they trusted me to be fair and reasonable. Posters that started off seeming like jerks changed their tune and became reasonable people. The debates themselves took on a whole new life and real communication was achieved - even where we didn't end up convincing one another. And best of all, I didn't walk away from the computer full of stress and trying to convince myself that I didn't care. Instead I walked away with a feeling of contentment.

That's when I decided that from then on, I was going to try and behave in such a way online, that I would feel completely comfortable meeting anyone I interacted with in real life. No longer would I make easy jabs from behind a digital mask. I still have to work at it sometimes because falling back into that knee jerk reaction to people is awfully easy. But the benefits of good online compassion show yet again how virtue is its own reward, even in a world with no physical retribution or consequences.

If you find your avatar surrounded by a bunch of virtual jerks, try leading by example. If you try it, I think you may find your virtual life much more fulfilling.