I love people. I really do.
I understand that as a journalist I’m supposed to be cynical and mistrustful and expect the worst of my fellow travelers on this planet. But my experience has been that people are basically good, and if given half a chance they will usually do the right thing in most situations.
Except when they get online.
And then I don’t know something happens to some people. They start doing things and going places and saying stuff they would never do, go or say in the real world. One of my friends blames it on what he calls the “anonymous intimacy” of the Internet. If no one can see you and no one knows your real name, his reasoning goes, then you can say or do anything you want and not really be accountable for it.
And without accountability, he says, things can get ugly.
I don’t know if that’s true in all cases, but I was troubled by one online news report I saw this week. It was a story on the ABC News website about a group of 20 Florida teenagers who were in a large limousine heading for their high school prom when a van traveling on the highway in front of their limo swerved, hit a wall and turned over.
The limo driver immediately pulled over to offer assistance. As soon as he stopped, the tuxedo and prom gown-wearing teenagers began piling out of the limousine and rushing to help pull the van’s occupants — including five adults and two children — to safety.
“We just kind of reacted,” said one of the teenagers. “We did what we had to do.”
Thankfully, no one in the van was seriously injured, although there was enough blood at the scene that a couple of dresses and tuxedoes were stained — think of it as collateral damage in the war against indifference. As soon as paramedics arrived, the teenagers were on their way again, arriving at the prom only 15 minutes late — albeit slightly disconcerted.
“Everybody had a story to tell,” one of the young people said. “It was a good prom.”
See what I mean? People are good, and most of them will choose to do good things, even in tough situations.
Scrolling down the story on the ABC News website, I browsed through the reader comments on the story. I expected that everyone would be as touched, impressed and inspired as I was by the actions of these great kids, and a few readers were. But very quickly the online conversation turned ugly, breaking into an argument on what does or does not constitute “God’s will” along with assorted expressions of negativity and bitterness.
“This just tells you the sad state of American kids today,” one reader wrote. “Most of them are such self-centered tossers that it is national headlines that a few of them managed to do something decent.”
“20 students in one limo?” another reader asked. “Somebody gotta check out the limo service for safety violation.”
“Kids today are over privileged,” said a third. “But I’m glad they helped the idiot who flipped the van.”
I have a hard time believing the negative commenters would express themselves in precisely the same way if they were standing face-to-face with those young people at the prom. I think most of us would be more inclined to congratulate the teenagers for the good thing they did, and maybe even try to help them clean the blood off of their prom clothes. That, it seems to me, would be the natural, intuitive, instinctive thing to do. Which in my book means most of the negativity we see online is unnatural, counter-intuitive and calculated.
And cloaked in a dark shroud of anonymous intimacy.
To read more by Joseph B. Walker, go to www.josephbwalker.com.