Strangers On The Internet

Growing up with the development of the Internet and the rise of social media, Internet safety was a major part of my instruction for real world knowledge. Prevention of identity theft, identifying scams, not sharing embarrassing photos, or sharing things that could get you in trouble with a college or an employer were all things preached toward us. The stories of Craigslist killer, stalkers over social media, or pedophiles posing as peers are the stories we were taught so we would never meet up with the people we interacted with online. However, as people find a thousand different ways of communicating with each other over Wi-Fi, we’ve discovered that the threat of so many of these “dangers” aren’t as prevalent as we once thought, and the rise of social media has redefined community and socialization as a whole in just the last decade or so.

Now, many people all over the world are making friends online and in person. Over 57% of teens have reported making new friends online, the vast majority being older teens. The trend has increased over the years, as making friends online loses its stigma among young people. There are several ways we as young adults interact through the Internet, the most popular being public social media sites where the large majority of us interact with friends we’ve made in person, family, and present the same personality online as we do in person. This is the most widely used form amongst people today — when was the last time you met someone who had never had a Facebook or Twitter. Over 75% of Internet users use social media .

Public social media is the social media we are used to people telling us not to interact with strangers. Friend requests, and random direct messaging are both platforms used by strangers to become friends. Public social media is usually regarded as one of the safer ways to vet Internet friends. Most people don’t spend time constructing every detail to put forth their best persona, according to Pew research only about 40% of online users feel any sort of pressure to do that. For the overwhelming majority, public social media is used to express personality and opinion, rather than to craft a particular persona. Political, religious and life views are expressed through media sharing and updates on status. We can follow our favorite public figures, and post about our involvement in activities that define us. Artists share their art, workers share their projects and progress, and parents show off their children. Public social media, if anything, tends to function as a window into the lives of our friends and loved ones. There’s been an upward trend in day-to-day Internet use as applications on smartphones improve their interface. Now live streams, instant pictures, and status updates are easier than ever. Even wristwatches, like the Apple Watch, are designed for immediate status updates about daily activities. Public social media has not only widened our knowledge of the daily lives of our friends and families, but has also allowed us a platform for greater self expression and communication.

Secondly is private social media. Private social media functions as more of a direct messaging app, although some have a more public platform that can be utilized. When I speak of private social media, I mean sites like Groupme or Kik that function as a group messaging system for clubs or friend groups, or Snapchat where we communicate through pictures and short videos. Private social media is a more direct interaction in which we function as ourselves. This is usually more brutally honest about our day-to-day lives than anything. It is the online equivalent to a dinner table conversation. Everyone talking, joking and sharing ideas and experiences, and even making plans makes these forms of discussion seem. These apps are entirely “friendship driven” a term coined by the researchers at Berkley working with The MacArthur Foundation to describe “practices [that]center on peers whom youth encounter in the age-segregated contexts of school but might also include friends and peers whom they meet through religious groups, school sports, and other local activity groups. For most youth, these local friendship-driven networks are their primary source of affiliation, friendship, and romantic partners, and their lives online mirror this local network.” (Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project, pg. 9-10 this also applies to public social media as well as private social media). The concept of the local network is far from a new concept, but the digitization of these communities has provided teenagers and young adults “usually have a ‘full-time intimate community’ with whom they communicate” ( New York Times, Teenagers’ Internet Socializing Not a Bad Thing). Meaning that the overwhelming majority of people have a group with whom to connect and communicate with, often whenever they need. A study conducted by PEW Research showed that 68% of teen social media users have had someone on their social media platforms support them through hard times, and 83% say social media helps them to connect to their friends better in terms of their day-to-day lives (Teens, Technology and Friendships pg. 1). A study by Dr. Larry Rosen showed that teenagers and young adults using the Internet have developed a skill in which they empathize more strongly than previous generations that did not use social media as extensively. This same study also showed a positive correlation between increased virtual empathy and real-world empathy and social support, meaning that social media users and their friends show stronger relationships and increased interconnectivity. The advent of social media and the internet has changed not only how we make friends but how often we interact with them, and how deeply we know people.

The days of the fear of anonymous Internet users are now long gone. Now, some of the most popular platforms of social media platforms are mostly, if not entirely anonymous. Anonymous social media refers to websites and applications where your name and face aren’t generally required for use. Websites like Tumblr, 4Chan, or Reddit or applications like Yik Yak and Whisper are examples of social media for users who don’t want to be known. It’s a social norm to not be public about our identity in these areas and it has two effects. One, the obvious, Is that people are unabashedly themselves, and not always in a positive light. Racist sentiments, hate speech, and verbal abuse against strangers become prevalent when a user has virtually no true identity. This phenomenon occurs in most instances in which the person we direct our anger at can’t identify us, or when we can’t see their reactions. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as “The Disinhibition Effect”, and the rise of the Internet has amplified the effect immensely. Alternatively, the ability to be entirely honest without consequence also allows people to be their most genuine, therefore allowing people to discuss issues they may not feel safe discussing elsewhere. The second, less obvious effect is the creation of a character or novelty account. By character, I mean an alternative persona that doesn’t truly reflect the person who runs the account but functions more as a novelty. This shows up a lot on sites like Tumblr, Twitter, and Yik Yak. When interviewing people who choose to run these accounts, it seems that, unless it is an account created specifically to be mean, people tend to take more consideration into what they post with that account in order to keep up the illusion that the character is actually more of a person. One interviewee[*] claims he’s kinder using his account, than he is when anonymous. “On anon [anonymous]I tend to be more sarcastic and pick on people a little, but when I’m [posting as his username]I’m always trying to be really friendly and trying to make people laugh without being mean” Another claims that she is more bold with her statements than she usually would be, but in a good way. She says her “character” gives her confidence she wouldn’t have otherwise. Others use their anonymity to tease and “troll” other users with a particular running joke (Take for instance Ken M. from Yahoo, who intentionally makes a joke of serious articles by making up unrealistic anecdotes or putting forth ridiculous opinions). Anonymous social media has given people an outlet not only for humor and novelty humor accounts, but also for shameless authenticity (whether or not it is helpful or kind).

The Internet is easily one of humanity’s greatest creations. No only can we access media and information at the blink of an eye (or slower if you don’t have great bandwidth). It allows us to stay connected to friends and loved ones, allows us to keep up with people we otherwise might not, and form stronger bonds with those friends. Because of the Internet empathy grows stronger with younger generations, and we allow people to open up by giving them veils of anonymity. The way we socialize has been forever changed by the increasing interconnectedness of the world, made possible by the advent of the Internet.