He That Loseth His Life

Anyone who has studied American Southern literature will have read “Good Country People,” a short story written in 1955 by Flannery O’Connor. The piece describes how two convergent views of reality collide at an uncomfortable point of contact: one seemingly innocent romantic encounter that erupts into something horrific, cruel and bizarre.

Flannery O'Connor in her driveway in 1962
Flannery O’Connor in her driveway, in 1962. Photo by Joe McTyre for the Atlanta Constitution. Image reproduced from the New York Times.

The main point of the story is that we reside in a dual existence between two planes of understanding. One is seemingly docile and innocent, a patchwork of hopeful clichés operating as accepted truth. The other is more nihilistic and refutes any deep metaphysical parallels with the surface world, insisting that there is nothing behind or beyond that which we can interpret with our senses.

Last week, three media pieces appeared concerning the topic of cyberbullying. One is an article on TechDirt by Shawn DuBravac, Ph.D., chief economist at the Consumer Electronics Association and author of the upcoming book, Digital Destiny: How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Work, Live, and Communicate.

In his TechDirt piece, DuBravac discusses how social media participants cultivate parallel identities, and these profiles dictate wholly separate belief structures regarding acceptable engagement. He mentions a recent Supreme Court case of a man convicted of threatening to kill his wife on her Facebook page. The defense claimed that what he wrote online what never intended to be taken literally; the prosecution argued that what he meant when he wrote the post is irrelevant to the act itself.

This case could create an interesting precedent, given a remark by Justice Sonia Sotomayor that “[the courts] have been loathe to create more exceptions to the First Amendment,” which DuBravac suggests could increase the amount of legal latitude afforded to perpetrators of online abuse. However, he also senses that the separation between the digital and offline realms are slowly converging:

“Since its foundation, the Internet has revealed its unique place in society – a place where people are free to be whoever they want. This freedom has found its purest expression in social network sites. Yet the nature of the Internet is changing. We hardly even talk about ‘being online’ anymore, because we’re always online through our smartphones and mobile devices.”

The first step towards resolving any problem is to define it. Last week, the Novia Scotia Supreme Court included “element(s) of malice” as part of their official definition of cyberbullying. The new tort describes the procedure by which a complainant can seek protection orders against any individual or group whose electronic communications are intended to cause “fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other damage or harm to another person’s health, emotional well-being, self-esteem or reputation.”

Such language would be a good start for many colleges and universities in the United States, many of whom have policies about sexual assault, hazing and discrimination but hardly any mention of abuse that occurs online. This lack of clarity could possibly reflect a difference in attitude, demonstrating that cyberbullying behavior among adolescents evolves as the effect age groups become older.

According to a study conducted by researchers in Seattle and Wisconsin, for example, name-calling attacks that might evoke suicidal thoughts among a preteen audience are statistically less likely to have the same effect on college students. In addition, there is little definition or agreement among authorities as to what actions constitute cyberbullying at the university level.

cyberbullying illustrationOn the one hand, we have people who actively minimize their responsibility when posting content online. It’s the digital equivalent of “I was angry and not thinking straight.” On the other hand, it’s clear that we need some sort of metric to properly qualify the spectrum of online aggression. It’s nearly impossible to determine the appropriate consequence when, for example, a simple Facebook comment goes too far. We can unfriend or unfollow those who transgress against us, but all that does is cut one stream from a single source.

It seems to be a rather grim business, this digital netherworld of anonymous nihilism slowly rising to greet us when we are most vulnerable. It brings to mind a revealing quote from Good Country People. It takes place at a pivotal moment in the story when the main character, a seemingly benign yet covertly despicable human, is compelled to defend his lack of personal accountability:

“I’ve gotten a lot of interesting things. And you needn’t think you’ll catch me because Pointer ain’t really my name. I use a different name at every house and don’t stay nowhere long. And I’ll tell you another thing, Hulga, you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born.”

Understanding Digital Dualism

“If you create the Internet as false, then you create the not-internet, which gets to be real.” So says sociologist and writer Nathan Jurgenson in a piece written last week by Kyle Chayka for Pacific Standard. Mr. Jurgenson introduced the term “digital dualism” in 2011 to describe the gaps that exist between how we depict ourselves online, and how we present ourselves when all the screens are turned off.

For the most part, we’ve become so accustomed to the online space that the personas we present retain at least some fragment of our real selves. Furthermore, it’s likely that we have contacts with whom we’ve never actually met face-to-face. With 71 percent of online adults having used Facebook in the past ten years, it’s not impossible to have a reasonably high number of “friends” whom we wouldn’t recognize on the street. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, just an interesting anthropological detail.

Where things get tricky is when the persona we put forth online is markedly different than our real life selves. A friend of mine is an avid gamer. As a random experiment, he switched the gender of his character to see what sort of reaction would take place. The female avatar’s level of play was not well received by other players (especially when he/she was winning), even though my friend’s game tactics were exactly the same as when he represented himself as a male character.

male and female avatars of an online game

Those who believe the online gaming world to be saturated with masochistic tendencies will not be surprised by the above account. That being said, there is a bigger issue at play. Digital dualism exists as a belief due to one’s personal assumption that online and offline worlds are separate, and thus distinct, realities. However, technology is now so engrained into our daily lives that the overlap between the virtual and physical worlds are indistinguishable, almost to the point where one is expected to reflect onto the other.

I believe this is why my friend was on the receiving end of so much anger, even beyond the rote “boys will be boys” stereotype that permeates online gaming. Maybe it was less about anger than betrayal; what they saw was not what they got, and this digital duality had a significant impact on their appreciation of my friend’s performance during the game encounter.