March 20, 2013

Yes, We Do Make the Choice to Use the Internet

Example forum view, from PhpBB.
Example forum view, from PhpBB. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
There was one comment left on my post about taking responsibility for our feelings while I was away that I wanted to address in some detail. This comment seemed to take issue with my suggestion that someone who routinely feels outraged when they spend time online might benefit from spending less time online.

I thought this was an obvious thing to suggest, but I stand corrected. It appears that it was not nearly as obvious as I thought.
Frankly, I find your "we are making the choice to do so" argument re: the internet to be extremely disingenuous. One might argue that people reading newspapers in the 1960s were "choosing" to do so as well. Heck, they even had to go outside to pick the paper up! The internet is the medium of communication now. It's real life. It's not a fairyland where people happen to wander into unicorns.
What I wrote certainly was not intended to be disingenuous. Yes, someone in the 1960s who read newspapers was in fact choosing to do so. Someone in the 1980s who watched television was choosing to do so. And today, someone who spends time on the Internet is choosing to do so. While these statements are true, none of them gets at what I was suggesting in the post. So here's yet another stab at it.

Vanity Searches

Suppose I set up a Google alert so that I receive an email every time someone writes about me. Also suppose that I use a Twitter monitoring tool to do something similar (i.e., making sure I see every tweet someone writes in which I am mentioned). With me so far? Now, my taking these steps is a choice insofar as anything else I do is a choice. Not doing these things does not prevent me from using the Internet for all sorts of other things (e.g., keeping up with various news stories).

Now suppose that I have these alerts set up like I described, and I become extremely angry and upset almost every day because they show me that people are saying negative things about me. Does it really seem disingenuous to suggest that I might disable these alerts once it becomes clear that I find their use so upsetting? And yes, if I find that the time I spend on the Internet doing whatever it is that I am doing there is routinely associated with strong negative feelings with which I am poorly equipped to cope, why wouldn't I consider reducing the time I spend there or changing what I am doing with my time there?

Creationism

Try a different sort of example. Suppose I frequently visit fundamentalist Christian Internet forums. Further suppose that I become outraged whenever someone there expresses creationist beliefs to the point where my outrage begins to cause me problems (e.g., insomnia, frequent rumination). Would it be disingenuous in some way to suggest that I might spend less time in such forums? I think not. I am making a choice to seek this sort of information out in much the same way I am making the choice to use various vanity monitoring tools above. If I cannot cope with the consequences of my behavior, perhaps I should change my behavior.

The Slymepit

Some people seem to delight in visiting the Internet forum known as the Slymepit, finding something objectionable, and then claiming that it constitutes some sort of harassment. I am no expert on the Slymepit. Having visited it twice briefly, I am hesitant to pass any sort of judgment on it. But for the sake of argument, let's say that it contains material most people would find offensive. If I am the one regularly visiting it to find such material and then share my outrage about it with others, don't I have at least some responsibility for the fact that I am choosing to visit it? If the material really bothered me, why would I keep coming back to it? Isn't this an obvious question that I should be asked?

To sum up, we each make decisions about how we spend our time. If I am being negatively affected by how I spend my time, it makes sense that those concerned about me might ask me why I keep doing things that produce distress. Why, they might ask, do I continue to visit places on the Internet that bother me so much? I think it is a good question and one which should be asked of some people more often.

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