Most people are good citizens in the offline world. They are kind to others, they obey laws and want their community to be a better place.
But these days many of us are also citizens of the online world. We participate in discussions, share photos, and get help using websites. While this makes communication faster and easier, it can also cause problems.
Stewart is a good guy. He cares about the feelings of others and avoids saying insensitive things at the dinner table. He would never call someone a hurtful name on the street or yell rude comments in a restaurant.
But when Stewart goes online, he seems to become a different person. In his mind, the Internet is the wild, wild west, where he doesn’t need to use his real name. He feels anonymous.
He often writes provocative comments on blogs and video websites without contributing anything valuable. His discussions on Twitter are often mean-spirited and personal. And sometimes he writes to companies using unnecessary profanity. It’s kind of a joke to him - a way to mess with people.
Recently a friend recognized his online name on a few comments and gave him a call. She had seen horrible things that he said to her brother online, and wanted Stewart to know that it hurt him, personally. She had one question for Stewart: Why?
Stewart was speechless - he never meant to hurt anybody. Before that moment, he never even considered the real people who were the targets of his comments. As icons on a computer screen, it was easy to feel disconnected. He didn't have to see their faces or reactions - it was like they weren't real.
But that all changed. Suddenly he could see that real people, just like the ones across from him at dinner, received and read his words online - and those words mattered. He also realized that his family uses the Internet every day. And if everyone behaved like him, it could become a pretty bad place.
Now he sees that citizenship means giving people the same respect he does in the real world, even when he disagrees with them. We all want to live in safe, productive communities and that takes awareness and effort from all of us, online and off.
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