If you’re not afraid of the Internet…maybe you should be?

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Dear Medical Science,

We are in need of a new term…or at least I am…but I’m certainly not alone. Surely, I am not the only person developing a persistent and nagging fear, a phobia if you will, of the Internet. Today alone there are two stories circulating of someone making some sort of terrible Internet mistake and being exposed, ridiculed, and mocked before the world.

The first is a young woman who bragged on Facebook about her dad’s confidential settlement with his employer, thereby getting the settlement overturned and I suppose leaving her dad with nothing but his legal bills. The woman is just barely an adult so the news source used her full name and chose a goofy picture that is likely the least flattering one she put out on her Facebook page.

Then we have a Cleveland, Ohio businesswoman who got arrogant about who she would and would not allow to network with her via LinkedIn and whose snarky and unprofessional responses to those she saw as upstarts went viral. Again, full name, profession, previous professional accolades. Ugh.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know anything more about either of these situations than any other reader. For all I know, these people are assholes of the worst sort who had this coming. Maybe there are people out there who have been hurt by them thinking, “At last…justice!”

On the other hand, I can’t help but see these two people and the many others who have come before them and think, “Oh you poor, stupid bastards.”

I’d bet the Facebook girl thought that picture was hilarious when she posted it, and to her friends and family it probably was. I’m sure she never stopped to think how moronic it would make her look if it accompanied a story that made her out to be a spoiled rich-kid jerk. And it’s possible she felt that her father had been genuinely wronged by his employer and that the employer deserved to be told to “suck it.”

It wouldn’t be surprising if the LinkedIn lady thought she had every right to cast off the young upstarts, trying to get a free and easy ride on her hard won contacts. She may have even thought she was doing them a favor, forcing them to make their own way and build their contacts list themselves.

Again, I am not defending these people. I don’t know them or anything about them. I’m just suggesting possibilities. Considering alternate possibilities makes me wonder…how many of us have tried to get a word with someone higher on the food chain than ourselves only to be ignored or cast off, reminded that we don’t yet sit at the cool kids table? It happens all the time. Just like people celebrate their victories all the time.

People do these things and much worse. Who hasn’t yelled at their children? Who hasn’t been guilty of pride or arrogance? Who hasn’t gossiped or told a “white lie” or acted ungrateful or spoiled?  We do these things, some people more than others, but nobody is free and clear of all bad behavior. Luckily for us, the Internet is almost never there to catch us in our worst moments. The moments we all have when we’re tired, or misinformed, or emotional and we act ugly or stupid or foolish…or all three at once.

I hear these stories and I imagine myself making a bad choice or acting like a jerk and finding that the Internet took that moment, like the god damned Eye of Sauron, to turn my way and expose the very worst of me to the world. It’s chilling. It’s a terrifying concept, and I’m nobody. Imagine how it feels to be out in the public eye, with people chasing after you to catch those embarrassing moments. Unimaginable.

And yeah, yeah…I hear you. “So don’t post stupid pictures on Facebook!” “Don’t be rude in public forums!” “Don’t use social media at all if it scares you that bad!” “Don’t win an Oscar!” All of these are perfectly valid, particularly when so many of these stories are shit people did to themselves. But in the modern world, you could eschew all social media, avoid the Internet, even refuse to carry a smart phone…but almost everybody else has these things. You can draw the ridicule of the entire freaking world just by walking down the street and tripping in a spectacular way.

It makes me just a little afraid of the Internet. It makes me afraid for my kids and my nieces and nephews and every other regular person who might get caught at their worst. Because when the Internet catches those moments, everyone seems to pretend that they’re unusual. People act like nobody else is ever arrogant or stupid, it’s just THAT guy. When in fact we all are sometimes. We all have our terrible moments and we can only hope to learn from them without being exposed to the world.

It makes me wish there were some way to make empathy go viral.

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