If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

I’m turning over a new leaf, I’m maturing, I am beginning to realise the error of some of my ways. Every day I look in the mirror and realise that I’m becoming more like my father and grandfather – more experienced, more cynical, and a lot more wary of the motives of others.

My grandfather was involved in local political circles through his work in the museums profession. Wise to the underhanded ways of some civil servants he was a great believer that if you didn’t want something to come back to haunt you in the future then you shouldn’t write it down. He died in 1990, at that time the greatest risk of embarrassment was posed by a harshly-worded letter or some clumsy words in the local paper. Today it is perhaps simplest to assume that absolutely everything you do, be it written, verbal, or photographic will be publicly syndicated – then misunderstood, taken out of context, and kept on record for all time. The internet never forgets, especially when you’ve pissed someone off!

I am guilty of many social indiscretions that shared quietly with friends over a drink, masked by the chatter of a busy bar, will never be disseminated further. However, when I share such thoughts online the entire world can take umbrage with them, distribute them more widely, and ultimately the words I wrote in the heat of the moment can reach the very person I would least like to read them. Karma is vague and drawn-out, whereas degrees of separation are clearly defined and operate at the speed of lightning. The route to the ‘victim’ of your Tweet, Instagram or status update is rarely, if ever, obvious to you as you’re thumbing-in the words; but the resulting comeback will often be almost instantaneous. In one instance I posted a shot on Instagram of a row of people waiting for a train, minutes later I got a message back from a follower I had never met in person pointing out their boss in the picture. I hadn’t said anything derogatory – thankfully – but it illustrates a point: Everything we post is potentially stockpiling ammunition for use against us in the future.

However, the other side of the argument also holds true – some people were quite simply never meant to interact in the online age. Without an understanding of the colloquialisms and throw-away nature of amusing status updates and tweets such people view everything (be it from a stranger or someone they know in person) in an overly literal sense – often misinterpreting innocuous posts as being deliberately malicious or in some way offensive. Never have so many people been so massively offended by so many insignificant things. I once tweeted a photo of a stranger wearing shoes I didn’t particularly like. The person in the photo could not be identified, the opinion wholly my own, no one was libelled; I even finished my sentence with a smilie! Someone immediately took ‘offence’ – stupidly so. In the words of a straight-talking Australian comedian I saw on the telly late at night, “So what? Take offence. Be offended. Nothing’s actually going to happen.”

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