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I’m always amazed at the amount of knowledge which exists. When talking and research within my own ‘field of learning’ it seems that the knowledge is infinite, with people constantly challenging and creating new theories and frameworks. But what really blows my mind, is when I realise that there are numerous other fields of knowledge which are equally being engaged with across the world!

As you might be aware, I am into all things digital, and try to engage with a range of areas which touch on the digital. Last week, I found myself sat in a Humanities, Religion and Philosophy conference keynote on digital identity. A key note which really got me thinking…

The dangers of living in the digital

One decision I made a long time ago, was to leave the comments section of this blog and my personal YouTube videos available for others to engage with. I had read numerous accounts of people preventing others from commenting because of the sometimes negative feedback that they had encountered. For me, a life long sufferer with anxiety and low personal esteem, I didn’t want to hide away from what people think, but rather to try to develop strategies to cope with the negative should it arise. Although I am still progressing along this journey, I do sometimes wonder what possesses people to put some of the comments onto the internet. Is this what they are like in real life?

Why I think some comments can be harsh.

Bodies of Knowledge Research Conference

‘Stretchy Flesh: Being Corporeal in Digital Spaces’ by Karen O’Donnell

Before listening to this talk, by Dr Karen O’Donnell, I had been bouncing around my own theory about people’s comments on the internet. I had started to put together a theory which was based around the lack of social constraints on the internet. My theory went along the line of, when some people are commenting on the internet, they do not engage with the limiting factors from engaging with the person face to face, which might mean that they alter their responses. This means that instead of presenting their response in a carefully constructed manner to reduce the possible negative impact of their comments, they just say exactly what they are thinking. I never thought that they were being negative on purpose, it was just that they were saying things straight and to the point within any embellishment. Social requirements were removed and what you were left with was the bare bones of the comments. Of course, the extreme trolls of the internet who revel in causing upset are not being factored into this theory. I have yet to find a theory to tell me why people are nasty on purpose!

I did even go as far as to think that maybe, when on the internet, the almost real person comes to the forefront. Within the real world we adapt and alter our responses to take into account personal emotions, while on the internet we are not required to do this and so our ‘real’ uncensored self comes about.

How the keynote changed my thinking

Dr Karen O’Donnell’s keynote was focused on the idea that, when we are on the internet, there are not two manifestations of ‘self’ but one continuous one. The ‘stretching of the flesh’.

(At this point I have to provide a disclaimer. I might misrepresent Karen’s theory here, since I am just using my own words and, if I do, I apologise).

We live in a world of dualism which supports my original theory of self and digital self. But, Karen’s theory dismisses the dualism of selves and instead leads to what she quite eloquently defined as a ‘holistic hybridity’ of self.

As the keynote progressed, I felt my original theory start to be reassessed. Initially, I had speculated that we engaged with two elements of our personality. But now I started to see that this was might not actually be the case. We were the same ‘self’ just engaging in two different environments. But if there was not a change in personality as people engaged in the digital spaces, why is there so much negativity there? Well, maybe it is because we don’t accept that we are engaging with a ‘real person’?

Say what you want – they are not real!

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

This was when my thinking started to change. If we are still our ‘real self’ on the internet, why do we sometimes present feedback or comments which might be perceived as harsh or even blunt? Maybe this is not because we turn into some sort of truth-telling monster, but more that we fail to see the original writer of the information as a ‘real’ person. And, because of this lack of acknowledgement, we do not apply the usual social interactive constraints.

When I am providing feedback for assignments, I always reread what I have written to assess the possible ways that the comments could be construed. The reason I do this is that I know I am writing to a real person. This often results in me rewording what I have put. The same is true when I am replying to emails, especially if I know the person who will be receiving my reply. Sadly, I started to realise that if I am unaware of the person who sent me the communication, I assume that it is not a person with feelings and emotions and treat it like some sort of technical bot. A digital entity which lacks emotions and feelings. If this is the case then maybe this would explain how I (we) sometimes engage with people/bots on the internet when we/people respond overly bluntly?


I’ve not fully explored these thoughts or looked for empirical data to support them. Karen’s talk did alter my current thinking. Maybe people react differently due to this lack of acknowledgement of a person behind the comments. There is no difference between our real and digital self but when we are actually making comments, perhaps we do not acknowledge that it was a real person who originally wrote the content. By acknowledging this, maybe it will encourage us to temper or adjust the way in which we reply and, in doing this, maybe the internet would become a better place for providing and receiving comments.


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