Does Life Online Make Us More Sensitive?

I have been thinking a bit about online communication, partly in response to reading a section of Peter Horsfield’s From Jesus to the Internet. My thinking has also been prompted by this article about how the use of trigger warnings on campus may be impacting the mental health of students. That article is specifically about communication in academic settings, but I think there are a lot of connections with online communication – Facebook has been the main place I have come across trigger warnings, and it is also the place where I have found them problematic.

What I have been wondering about is whether online communication (or the way we use it) is making us more sensitive, and whether that is a problem. Potentially this is just my own experience, and not anyone else’s experience. But I would like to share this experience in case it does resonate with some others.

One of the differences with online communication is that we can communicate instantly without interrupting. I can remember when I was a teenager, living with my parents, being fairly nervous about using the phone. I would be interrupting whoever I was calling to talk to, so what if they didn’t want to talk to me? Since I was going to be interrupting someone, it was important to know exactly what I needed to talk to them about – I didn’t want to be interrupting them and then also wasting their time. Leaving home I entered a world of academia and employment where I could do most of my communication via email. The difference with email was that the person I was writing to would receive my message very quickly (unlike sending a letter via post), but they wouldn’t be under pressure to answer right when they received it (unlike answering a phone call). The difference is that with this form of communication we don’t need to learn to become confident in direct communication. In fact, it’s not unusual to even use email to communicate with people who are in the same room, so as not to interrupt!

Another difference with online communication is that we can easily surround ourselves with people who are coming from similar experiences to us and who hold similar views. Another thing I can remember from my teenage years is riding in my cousin’s car and asking him what it was like being at university. (I would have still had another year of secondary college to go.) He said the best thing about university was that you could make a whole lot of friends who were into the same things you were into. I think the Internet is like that too. On social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter we can curate our newsfeed so that we are only presented with the views and experiences of people who are like us. If we disagree with someone we can remove them from the list or hide their posts. But I wonder what that does to our resilience? I think the option of doing this means that I don’t learn to get along with people who are different to me.

On top of that, I wonder about whether the distant nature of online communication means that we react as though we have been physically threatened when people disagree with us? Some of us now spend more time communicating online that we do in person – perhaps mostly with people who share similar views and experiences. It would be fair to say that a large section of people in my Facebook newsfeed are Christian and/or politically left wing. My Twitter newsfeed is a bit more diverse, but I don’t spend so much time on there. When I do come across a differing view – especially if it is expressed directly in response to something I’ve said – it can feel as though I have been physically threatened or attacked by someone, even though it is only words, and they haven’t even been said directly to me. I am wondering whether we are so protected by the distance of online communication that we now experience online disagreements as we might have once experienced an altercation in the street? I am wondering whether this experience resonates with others?

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