Words online and why they matter

Brian Fosdick
Brian Fosdick

It’s common to hear the opinion that what you say online means nothing.

That behind a shroud of anonymity and the glowing barrier of the computer screen, one is immune to consequences no matter what they say.

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Despite this misconception, the internet has changed a lot from when it was a sea of anonymity. Almost everything you do on the net requires you to have your name tied to it in some way and for better or worse, and things you say online are now tied to you in the real world.

Justin Carter, a Texas teenager, is facing eight years in prison for a sarcastic comment he made in an online game and it’s becoming obvious that some people may not find threatening people online as funny as others do. The simple rule to avoid punishment for making a stupid comment online would be to just not say something that you wouldn’t say to random strangers in the real world. If you’re not comfortable yelling what you’re saying in public, it’s probably not a good thing to say online anymore.

I’m not going to dig into the details of the story because that isn’t the actual point, the message behind it is. The internet is no longer a place where you can go and be a jerk, and expect a complete lack of consequences.

This isn’t a challenge to anyone who is somehow insulted by this claim. I’m sure there are plenty of people who could do their best to make your life miserable over the Internet and do a pretty good job with it. But no matter how you cut it, it’s hard to deny that words now have real value on the net.

The problem stems from the fact that people still think of social media sites as a “free speech” areas where you can say anything no matter how ridiculous, insulting or outright dangerous. Social media was never a sea of anonymity; it’s more of a public pool. When you walk over and spit in it, people are much more likely to notice a person who is trying their best to ruin it for everyone else. Friendships crumble all the time on social media over what many people would consider harmless comments about race, gender or any number of other things.

The most common argument against people taking serious action against others online stems from the assumption that this kind of behavior is what people should expect online. That people shouldn’t have an opinion online if they’re not ready to take the heat for having that opinion. Basically, grow a thicker skin.

The argument of course falls flat on its face when you realize that it’s really just an argument to excuse indecency. Why people would ever need a place to be a jerk with no consequences is beyond me, but as the Internet evolves, so must the community. There are still some websites that value complete anonymity, but for the most part if one has a name attached to their posts, they are subject to the basic rules of being a decent human being or being removed.

With some of the most popular sites in recent years being places like Reddit, Facebook and Twitter, the Internet is more and more about building a reputation for yourself through respectful behavior. When people can put a face and name on what’s being said to them over the internet, the things you say online begin to reflect your personality.

The interesting thing is, no matter how much people may object to it, the person you are online is the exact same person you are in real life. Even if people tell themselves they’re only “pretending” to be racist or sexist online to make someone else angry, they’re really just fooling themselves. You can’t pretend to hate a group of people if deep down inside you really don’t.

The Internet is becoming a giant public forum. You will be judged for how you interact with others online whether you like it or not. It’s time people finally accepted the rule that you must still think before you speak, even if you’re only speaking online.

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Brian Fosdick is a senior JTC major with a minor in political science and enjoys when you send all of his hate mail/love confessions to letters@collegian.com