I’ve been online for a long time. The brokerage firm that I worked for in San Francisco was one of the early promoters of the Internet; it handled the IPO for Netcom, one of the first consumer ISPs. The firm’s employees were encouraged to go online and become evangelists for the Internet. (Of course, I was following health care services companies that were all going bankrupt because of changes in reimbursement. Alas.)
Around 2000, I became involved in a literary discussion board that started on Salon’s Table Talk and moved all over the place. The people on the board became friends in real life, not just online. They are really smart and interesting! Many of them also participated in other online literary publications that I had no time for because I was writing about hedge funds and day trading, not emotional life expressed through well-chosen words.
Although day traders should pay attention to their emotional lives, because it’s the emotional stuff that will trip them up more than the market gyrations will.
Recently, there’s been a big blow-up in that online literary world, with two different women accusing two different men of sexual assault. I don’t know any of the people involved, nor do I have an opinion about what happened. But I do have opinions about relationships and sharing. There’s nothing special about the Internet, except that the black type against the white screen intensifies the drama of everyday life.
A key is to know your audience. Online, your audience is theoretically the entire world, which makes it a dangerous place for oversharing. Offline, you can see that your audience is a real person with real stuff going on, and you can see when this person is bored or annoyed. You wouldn’t complain about your 3% raise to someone who is losing his job, nor would you complain about your bad hair day to someone who lost her hair due to chemotherapy. (If you complain about your raise to someone undergoing chemotherapy and about your bad hair to someone losing his job, though, it’s okay – you’re lightening the mood!)
I also think that online behavior exacerbates certain negative behaviors. It makes the narcissist more prone to self-aggrandization; people will roll their eyes when you name drop during an in-person conversation, but you won’t know that when they click away online – they might even believe that you run a foundation and have recruited a lot of fancy people to your board. It also encourages controversy and argument in the name of page views. (I was fired from one blogging gig because I wasn’t interested in writing outrageous things to rile up readers.) We are so often told that there are two sides to every story, but that doesn’t mean that both sides are right. Sometimes, one side is just plain crazy; other times, we’re wading through all the grays in the Pantone color matching system.
A few years ago, I attended a University of Illinois at Chicago commencement ceremony where the speaker was Jim Liautaud, an entrepreneur who is interested in emotional intelligence. (He is the father of Jimmy John of sandwich fame as well as a donor to UIC.) He said something profound: we often spend too much time trying to win over people who don’t like us that we ignore the people who do. The reality is that not everyone will like us, and that we all know really great people whom we like and who like us, too. If we spend more time with those we like, we’ll have a better life.
Peter Drucker has said something similar about career management; we’re better off playing to our strengths than trying to overcome our weaknesses.
One extreme interpretation of this is that if you are a literary writer, you are probably better off writing about emotional life with well-chosen words than writing screeds intended to make people love you and hate someone else because you are a victim no matter what anyone else says.
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other networking sites make money off of what they know about us. There are even apps that claim to calculate the value of your information to Facebook. We’re giving away our information in exchange for the opportunity to engage with other people. For me, it’s a fair trade, especially because most of the ads are far enough off base that I know that they aren’t using my data well. With this blog, I’m giving away some of my knowledge, but that’s in part because I can’t find paying venues that let me do what I want to do all of the time. And if you are inspired to hire me or buy one of my books, so much the better.
If you’re giving away your deepest pain with no payoff, why? The catharsis won’t last as long as the post will online, and it will be part of your canon forever. Do you want that? Vent to your friends (NOT those dealing with similar but worse things), not the world. Use the Internet to share your ideas.
A less extreme version interpretation of the Liautaud and Drucker propositions is that we’re always learning: about people, places, money, what have you. We have freedom of speech, and we have free will. These can be used for good or for bad. And then, we all get up the next day and do it again. So let’s use it for good, as much as possible.