One month, in 2007, the New York Times ran two stories about going online. The first article attempts to placate parent fears about the dangers of going online, but just a few weeks later, the same paper reports that more teens are actually experiencing more cyberbullying. With conflicting messages like this, it’s no surprise that people are often confused by what it means to go online and participate in online communities.
When I was younger, I didn’t really join any chat rooms or belong to any groups online. However, in college, in what can be called a rite of passage for any minority, I became interested in exploring my cultural identity and joined some groups online. Some were pretty innocuous, such as a group of Asian bloggers who had formed a community and interacted via our blogs and the site’s discussion boards, while others were a bit more vocal about activism. It was during this time that I had my first real experience with cyberbullying and I was the victim. As a response to a member’s post about how he believed his teacher was racist because the teacher constantly picked on the member, I asked if there were any other extenuating factors, such as the member’s classroom behavior, which could explain the teacher’s actions. I explained that I thought assuming racism is a dangerous step and being labeled as a racist is incredibly damaging, especially without proof. Almost immediately, the backlash started, not just from the original poster but from the other members of that particular group.
Fortunately, with the exception of 1 or 2 nasty emails from a particularly persistent member, the harassment ended when I left that group and I was left with a few lesson from this experience:
- You can’t always expect people to be reasonable and logical. This is especially true when you’re online. The members of that group claimed to be activists, but I learned that for most of them, activism wasn’t that different from racism. As far as I can recall, that site was a platform used by most of the members to rant and gripe about real and/or perceived instances of racism without much effort at education or real action.
- Every cloud has a silver lining. While I had a negative experience with that (and one other) group, the online community of bloggers ended up being so much more rewarding in terms of enrichment and personal connections. Though the actual site is no longer available (lack of time and funds to run it), most of us have found each other again on Facebook, Twitter, and even Foursquare and we continue to interact with each other through these platforms.
- Online communities aren’t that different from offline communities. Aside from the lack of inhibition, I think most people stay true to their characters online. The people that I clashed with in that one group are most likely people with whom I would not get along in real life, whereas I would probably continue to get along well with the members of the online blogging community. Actually, I do know that I will get along with them since I’ve met a few of them in real life.
So are online communities safe? Yes. Is there cyberbullying? Yes. This doesn’t mean that we should let young children navigate the internet without supervision, but this also doesn’t mean that we should forbid any young user from going online. Just like we use common sense and caution in navigating our offline lives, we should do the same for our online ones.