Like most people who work in IT (in fact, probably most people today) I spend a lot of time on the Internet. Aside from the work applications, it's my first stop for information and the latest in current affairs. I can read news as it breaks, along with readers' opinions and comments, and there are online communities where I can debate any subject under the sun.
It doesn't take long, though, to discover that the Internet has a dark underbelly. There is something about being online that can bring out the worst in people, and cause them to write things they would never dream of saying in person.
Down the rabbit hole
I've lost count of the number of online discussions I've seen that started out as a debate on a particular subject and quickly degenerated into vicious personal attacks, the original topic long forgotten.
Those of you who follow online events might have heard of the on-going case of a woman, Anita Sarkeesian, who raised the issue of sexism in gaming culture, and was bombarded with threats of physical and sexual violence from people who disagreed with her claims. Sadly, this is not an isolated case.
Cultural pundits have commented on the phenomenon of people engaging in online affairs and not considering it 'cheating'. What is it about the Internet that causes such an aberration in people's behaviour, rendering them almost unrecognisable?
The cloak of anonymity
There is no doubt that anonymity plays a part. On the majority of web forums and comment sections, users can employ a pseudonym. Online pot-stirrers can discard their inhibitions along with their real names, freeing them to post things they might not otherwise say.
It is also much easier to treat people poorly when we don't have to look them in the eye and see the hurt we're causing. This also means many non-verbal cues that guide our conversations—such as body language or tone—are absent. The combination of anonymity and distance can breed an online mindset that strips away some of the normal inhibitions that guide the way we interact with one another.
A Brave New World
There is one other factor that I think is often overlooked: we treat the Internet as a novelty. Despite the pivotal importance of the Internet in our lives, we often still refer to what happens offline as 'real life', as if what happens online is somehow divorced from reality. Treating the online and offline realms as separate and different spheres of our lives causes multiple problems.
If we isolate what we do online from our day-to-day lives, it is possible to believe that insulting someone in an online forum is not the same as doing it in person because what we say online isn't 'real'. We can justify having an online flirtation because it is not like we are actually becoming involved with someone. We can convince ourselves that what we do offline defines our character, but what we do online is harmless or of little consequence.
Or so we think.
True state of our heart
In Matthew 5, Jesus says that it is not just an action itself that is a sin—the thoughts and intent that lead to it are equally damning. For example: 'You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, "You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment." But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment' (verses 21–22). Later, in Matthew chapter 15, verse 17, Jesus tells the disciples 'the things that come out of a person's mouth come from the heart, and these defile them'.
Jesus walked the earth long before Facebook—and the only tweeting may have been that of the sparrows on which God kept his eye—but his message is still relevant to our lives today. While Jesus may have been talking about the words that come from our mouths, I believe that it is just as applicable to the words that come from our keyboards. These words reveal our true hearts, and matter just as much as our actions in the physical world.
What we do matters—wherever that is
Far from being irrelevant, the way we act online—when we can be nameless or don't have to face those we hurt—can be a much more accurate indication of the true state of our hearts than the things we do when we are out in the open and accountable for our actions. Far from being inconsequential, our online actions can have a huge impact on others; consider the growing problem of suicide and mental illness as a result of cyber bullying.
As Jesus points out, it is not just others that it affects; our thoughts and words shape us—and change who we are. The way we act online can spill over into other spheres of our life, seeping into and contaminating our whole characters.
The Internet is not going to go away, and will only become a bigger part of modern life. We can't ignore it. Just like in the 'real world', we are called to go out into the wider Internet, to be salt in the virtual world and show that character is not turned off when the computer is turned on.
David Goodwin is the former Editor of The Salvation Army's magazine, On Fire. He is a freelance writer, and an unapologetic geek.
David Goodwin's archive of articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/david-goodwin.html