Friday, July 9, 2010

The Anonymity of the Internet

The Internet is simply amazing. It can be used to spread useful information, connect with family and friends, or even for shopping. However, as with everything else in life, it can also be used for bad. Instead of getting into a never-ending discussion about the vices and virtues of the Internet, I wanted to focus on a very specific aspect: anonymity. All you have to do is peruse some of the anonymous comments on YouTube, certain political blogs or news sites to understand the extent of the vitriol some people feel compelled to write. As civilized people in general, and as Jews in particular, we should never engage in such indecent behavior. Even while remaining anonymous online, we are accountable for all of our actions.

This is not to say that Internet anonymity is a bad thing - it is simply meant to say that using anonymity as a way to hurt another person is wrong. Interactive media (including blogs) are a great means through which to express an opinion and get feedback. They're also great because people tend to be more direct when writing a comment or stating a position when it can't be traced back to them. However, we must be cautious - not only with the spoken word, but also with the written word. We shouldn't stop being decent human beings just because we're behind a computer screen or cell phone. Even when you are passionate about a certain issue, you can state your position without resorting to viciousness. Never forget - when people begin personal attacks, it's simply an acknowledgement that their arguments lack merit.

I'm always impressed when people courteously disagree. To do so takes some sincere effort and practice from both parties involved. Getting courteous feedback from people who agree on a given issue is fine, but that's easy. We don't usually have to work on the way we act toward close friends or ideological allies. However, we usually do have to work on the way we act toward people we don't particularly like or who hold political or religious positions that differ from our own. Hopefully, we will overcome our inclination to act out against those individuals. But during those instances when we are thinking about giving in to our lower natures, a specific excerpt from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 2:1) might help put things into perspective:

"Consider three things and you will not come into the grip of sin: Know what is above you - a watchful Eye, an attentive Ear and all your deeds are recorded in a Book."

This quote provides many lessons, such as developing an awareness that even when people are not looking, all of our actions matter. It also teaches us that there is ultimate reward and punishment. Sometimes justice is seen in this world and sometimes it is not. However, either in this world or the next, every evil deed will be punished (unless there is repentance) and every good deed will be rewarded. Whether we are interacting with people face-to-face or posting something online or talking or texting on a cell phone, a basic code of ethical conduct must always be followed. Although we might be able to hide our true identities from human beings, we're never anonymous to God.

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