Why Can’t We Just All Get Along (Online) and Pay Attention?

Safety first! Padded pole by UK company 118 118.

Sitting on the ANA Boeing Dreamliner inaugural flight from Seattle to Tokyo, Japan, I brought up some reading material on my iPad and first turned to the Wall Street Journal.

In the German-language edition, I found the headline: “Sind iPhone-Nutzer schlechtere Eltern?” (Are iPhone Users Worse Parents?). The lede looked at a hapless father, Phil Tirapelle, who lost track of his 18-month-old son while he was busy texting during a walk outside. The toddler was “almost trampled” but rescued just in time. Regular readers of this space know that the number of emergency-room admissions for pedestrians who walk into lampposts while texting has doubled every year for the past five years.

Clearly, not paying attention can be a problem and sometimes a matter of life or death. Indeed, I just saw an article in the New York Times in which New York City’s transportation commissioner was quoted as having stopped people from walking mindlessly into traffic while texting (half of them were grateful, she reported; the other half were irritated).

We are absorbed and are unable to distinguish between that which is urgent, that which is important, and that which is none of the above (that would be most everything). Yet we cannot disconnect for fear of missing the mundane. And it could cost someone his life or result in great injury.

Later in the flight, I found an article in the U.S. edition of the Wall Street Journal positing the question: “Why We Are So Rude Online,” a topic also near and dear to my heart. Over the years I have noticed that people’s personalities become completely different once seated behind what they believe to be the anonymity of the computer.

But back to the WSJ article on rudeness, in which a TV announcer, Chip Bolcik, is quoted as knowingly posting “provocative” political questions on his Facebook page. He bemoans the fact that he has lost two friends over Facebook spats, but Bolcik is hardly innocent. He fans the flames and encourages dissent, even using “attack dog” friends to further fuel a fire.

Stepping back for a moment, one has to wonder if this is how Bolcik would conduct himself at a gathering of friends. He seems to feel that one’s behavior in the online world can be different, but he is quickly learning that there are no free passes and, as he commented after losing a particularly close friend, “I was pretty upset.”

The problem here is that the entire idea of how one comports oneself in society has been tossed aside. The online world isn’t isolated. What happens online can have repercussions both online and off. Saying anything that comes to mind isn’t any more acceptable online than it is to scream “fire” in a crowded theater.

It’s the newness of it all that allows this to happen. There are no rules, or so people seem to think, yet the very rules that govern life in general are still in force. The thought bubbles that float above cartoon characters, thinking things that should not be said, hold thoughts that we too should not air online.

I wrote about which medium one should use over a decade ago, calling it What Works Better When. The prime impetus behind this was that many people seemed not to understand how saying the same thing, but across different media, could result in different interpretations and understanding of what was being communicated. I never considered, until now, that I would have to contemplate expanding this to include when not to use technology (while crossing the street, for example) or that saying things without thinking (“I hate you”) might come across as more than a bit severe in an online environment where the tone cannot be transmitted along with the words.

Our lives have been so swept up by our infatuation with all things online that we cannot disconnect and are most likely typing something we probably shouldn’t while we mindlessly cross the street looking down at the smartphone. Perhaps New York City needs to update its Walk/Don’t Walk signs: they could say “Text/Don’t Text” instead.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

Comments are closed.