We are excited to have Sarah Cunningham author of Picking Dandelions posting today. In the real world, most of us have social etiquette nailed down.

We might not always follow the rules, but we know what they are.

Praise in public; correct in private, for example. Or, if you have a beef with someone, take it to them…before you take it elsewhere.

Especially for people of faith, these are the understood non-negotiables; the unwritten rules of the larger community.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed though, but in the online and print world, the rules of engagement can get a little less savvy…and sometimes, a little less civil.

It’s mildly acceptable to take cracks at complete strangers over Twitter, for example. Especially if your comments are funny. (I’m guilty on that one too sometimes.)

The social pressure is different too, I think. If we give into an indulgent, flaming blog post demoralizing a human target, we know we won’t catch the same social heat as we would if we unleashed the same tirade while standing in a grocery store or sanctuary aisle.

And the whole rule about going to the person first? The concept of maybe trying to work out our offenses or at least better understand our subject’s perspective? It seems to get lost in the static of cyberspace the moment we hit enter.

In the education world, we explain this phenomena using the term the “illusion of anonymity”. Meaning we permit ourselves to go to unusual extremes because we can easily separate ourselves from the consequences of our words. We never see the facial expressions or emotions triggered by the person we’re critiquing. So the results of our venting seem safely lost in the impersonalness of the internet.

It wasn’t really me who said that, God, it was the internet version of me. (Maybe we could use an internet version of the Holy Spirit to meet us in the virtual world?)

But I’ve been thinking. Even if—in the world of IP addresses and online networks—we never get called out for crossing a few civility lines on the net, even if our target never even sees our critical posts, even if it doesn’t trigger any hatemail to our inboxes, it strikes me that there still might be a victim. And that maybe the victim is us.

If we drift away from our moral centers and behave in ways that don’t align with our ideals, our target often times goes right on living in happy oblivion. They don’t even know what we’ve said.

Meanwhile, we stir constant negativity in our own minds and hearts. We train ourselves to look at the world and the people in it through a more cynical lens. We let our emotions and our desire for blog hits get hooked on the hype of venting anger and hate. And at the end of the night, even if that person on the other side of the computer network never even knows what we said about them, the person whose soul is a little bit darker from a day’s worth of online communication is us.

We’re the ones who have to look in the mirror at a less respectable version of ourselves. We’re the ones who have to fall asleep at night with the compromised consciences.

For some of us, it might be time to save the real victims here—the people who we spend 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with. The truth of it is, if we slowly turn them into monsters, we can’t ever get away from them.

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