Impulsive behavior can't be traced directly to Mark Zuckerberg, nor was
a 140-character communique the first time some public official opened wide and
inserted their foot. And barstool banter and dining room debates got pretty
heated long before this instant society emerged via inbox and smartphone.
In the rush toward rash outbursts that trend on Twitter, however, civility can seem like some ancient concept out of step with social media's narcissistic leanings, as evidenced by the recent insensitive email from a Manasquan school board member or the wide array of the napalm-drop tweets delivered by professional athletes.
Except that now it appears what happens in cyberspace is spilling over into our everyday existence.
It's difficult to quantify some increased need for instant gratification, or a sudden rise in feelings of self-importance.
Are there more incidents of people acting without thinking, like a Little League coach slapping a teenage umpire in Berkeley or a parent assaulting a player at a high school baseball game in Rumson?
We've all hit the "send" button in an emotional fit, when that same message back in the day would have been torn up on the way to the post office.
But rudeness seems to be on the rise, on Main Street as well as the Internet, in this age of rapid, around-the-clock dissemination of incidents and information, impacting everything from the widening political gap in Washington to the ruining of friendships on Facebook.
"I think civility is taking a big hit these days for a number of reasons. The disconnected nature of social media and of the online world in general, is adding to that greatly," said Steven Petrow, who writes the "Civil Behavior" column for The New York Times and is the author of the upcoming book "Mind Your Digital Manners."
"The way we communicate information is so much better, but are we really more connected? Are our relationships deeper and stronger? I question that. And living in a virtual world as so many people do now I fear is going to lead to more and more of this disconnection and this lack of civility that results from not having the kind of face-to-face contact that so many of us are used to, and what civility is usually predicated on."
The reality is that there's more at stake now, and that's why etiquette -- no, make that common sense -- needs to become more of a focus in both social media and social settings.
The playground bully was one thing, but a cyberbully can be so much worse.
This was painfully demonstrated in the case of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide after his roommate used a webcam to watch him in an encounter with another man, later using Twitter to urge friends to watch a second encounter, although that never occurred.
Unnamed, snarky dismissals and outrageous message board posts have the ability to ignite issues in a way that was unimaginable just two decades ago. Personal attacks and sexting photos can remain long into the future.
The impact from all of it is felt far beyond the glare of the computer screen and a hand-held device.
"Unlike the playground bully after school, there's something 24/7 about cyberbullying," Petrow said. "A young person can't really hide from what's being posted and what's being said, and it just goes around the clock. Couple that often with the anonymity, which means that people say much more hateful thing with greater, deeper impact, and it can be devastating to their lives, and we've seen that."
A survey released last month by the corporate training firm VitalSmarts found an increase in rudeness online reported by 78 percent of 2,698 people questioned.
In addition, people reported being less polite virtually than in other settings, and one in five indicated they've had less contact in person with someone they've known after an online altercation.
Maybe we know too much about each other all of the sudden. A friend or family member's political leanings are often out there for the everyone to dissect, along with opinions on everything from hot button issues to whether they like "Homeland" better than "Breaking Bad."
"It's called respectful engagement. We have to talk to each other again," Petrow added. "We are a country with a rich history of dissent and debate, and that's so crucial. On these online platforms, people just spew and they don't actually listen and they don't have that back-and-forth, give-and-take, and we need more of that."
Studies aside, someone who's a jerk in the supermarket is likely to be a jerk online. There's probably not much any of us can do about that.
The problem is when the rest of us act like that, because being a jerk in the privacy of your own home is a lot different than doing it online for the rest of humanity to see. And then, in the worst-case scenario, that behavior begins to seep into our lives and the lives of those around us.
Websites can try to moderate all they want, but ultimately we have to moderate ourselves, just like we do on a daily basis at home and at work.
Why would you say something online you wouldn't say to someone's face?
There are so many positives associated with social media, including instances where social and political activism has opened eyes and elicited change. Video and smartphone photos can assist law enforcement in investigations.
The unintended offshoots from all this new technology are so numerous it's mind-boggling. But if we all just exercise a little judgment and restraint, we might actually manage to grow as a society.
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