In the past year, I’ve watched a tale of two men unfold on social media. Actually, it is still unfolding. I won’t get specific because it’s political, and politics is not the focus, or the reason for the close observation.
The focus is on the character of two men, and how others react to them. The emotions they evoke, the loyalty they conjure, the inspiration they offer. I wanted to see how bonds form between people who have never met. I’ve spent over a year studying this, because it’s a significant thing in today’s society and that makes it significant to any writer who creates stories that emulate real life.
I expected attachments. We get interested and involved, we empathize and care for those with whom we associate and relate. And we form snap and hostile opinions toward those who treat them unfairly. Our initial instinct is to jump in and defend—and many do. But just as many respond with an emoji laughing, weeping, or expressing their agreement or disagreement. Sometimes elegantly, sometimes vulgarly, but nearly always bluntly and with an honesty often tempered when interacting with someone face-to-face.
And then there are those who don’t respond, but because you’ve been watching them you can clearly imagine their reaction. They’re smiling like Cheshire cats or rolling their eyes heavenward on the other side of their screens because they know better or because they’re fed up or amused that someone is so far off-base.
Doing such research isn’t for the feint of heart or those who require coddling. You see and hear raw emotional reactions, all the things people used to think but never say. There’s something about the anonimity of being behind a screen that emboldens some to just spill every thought that flows through their mind without a hint of internal censor. In that way, it’s uncivilized a lot of the time. But it’s also fascinating to see unfiltered thoughts. Those too are critical for realism in writing.
Interestingly, we find the range of emotions and emotional reactions we see in everyday off-line life. Trust, faith, compassion. Betrayal, backstabbing, dishonesty. Social-climbing, spin, lies and everything else in between. We also see great acts of love, small and enormously huge kindnesses. We see a full cross-section of humanity. It’s messy. So are we.
The only reason I included all of this in this article is to share an open-eyed assessment of some of my observations. Bottom line: When online, beware. All the good and bad in off-line life exists online also. And online we lack the intuitive responses of body language, tone inflections, and visual hints to guide us to judgments on honesty and deception.
That said, I’ve watched some people for a long, long time now, and when you do that, you glean insights into those individuals’ character. Good is still easy to spot—and actions bear it out, confirming goodness. Evil is a bit trickier because ulterior motives are often at work. Like in life, few are pure evil, but if they are, they are easy to spot (and to stay away from). Actions speak most loudly, so watch and see how people treat others. How they respond to others. And that brings me to my tale of two men…
These men, A and B, are competitors. One, A, risked everything to start an online business and is moderately successful but struggling. B chose another path and revealed hints of nefarious practices and an absence of character. But only hints.
Both men have loyal followings, supporters who stand with them, and, staunchly defend when criticism arises—and it often does. That’s normal for online, where emotions are heated and typically raw.
In glimpses, we see A speak frankly about his struggles. Not in a ‘poor me’ kind of way, but in a ‘these are the facts and they’re often not pretty but they are real’ kind of way. In B we get more of the ‘poor me’ glimpses, and diversionary tactics employed to change the subject when the heat gets too hot.
Observers don’t miss the glimpses and they call the men out. A defends his positions and actions. B can’t.
Some would simplify this tale as a classic battle of good versus evil. That wouldn’t be an inaccurate assessment. And yet we see A, who struggles to get things right, to hold back what does or could do harm, often get the proverbial short end of the stick while B, who simply doesn’t act responsibly, seems to flourish.
Isn’t that the way of it? Good suffers and evil flourishes?
In life, the watchers tend to avoid those behaving irresponsibly. We recognize truth-tellers and gravitate to them and away from the opportunists with ulterior motives. So sometimes we see the fallout created and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we see the reckoning.
Online, it’s more difficult to determine truth-tellers. Some who are not truth-tellers are very good at deception. But eventually they out themselves and then there is a reckoning. Observing, we see it unfold. The deceptive tapestry woven begins to unravel and gaping holes appear. In those holes, the truth is exposed.
When that reckoning comes, an explosion of emotion in others comes with it. A is vindicated. Those loyal followers are vindicated to themselves and others—truth has verified their faith in this human being was and is just. B is exposed, disgraced, and despised by those who always opposed him. His loyal followers are shocked by the deception, angry, incredibly disappointed, and suffer a very real and intense sense of betrayal that reshapes their perspective on not only B but on all he espoused.
These emotional reactions are all real. The impact on the people having them is real. And, as in off-line experiences, these online experiences do alter perceptions and views in people overall—on or off-line.
That impact, I think surprises some people, but it shouldn’t. The anonymity of online removes or lowers guards and filters. Assumptions that others are acting under the standards we hold dear are made. False assumptions. People conduct themselves according to their own standards, not to ours, but online that is easier to forget.
My intent in sharing this article was two-fold. First, to speak honestly about some of what we see in social media, and secondly, to share the tale of the two men. In reading this, I see I have done the first and fallen shy on the second, so let me sum it up:
A is a man of character who struggles, expects to struggle and holds himself accountable to the highest possible standards by just about anyone’s measure. He is for truth. Whatever it is, it is, and the chips fall where they may. He is responsible, and will not share info that he determines could put others in jeopardy or cause harm. Admirable and noble and—and this is what makes him incredibly special—unassuming. He doesn’t shine in limelight or enjoy huge financial rewards. He’s just a good man doing what he believes in and what he is convinced is right. (In many ways, this makes him a hero.)
B is a man of questionable character who is bent on fortune and fame and willingly uses whatever, whenever, however to do it…subtly. He is for himself. And if he must use another or twist the truth to manufacture benefit to himself through sensationalism or other less than honorable means, so be it. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day and, when he can, he exploits that to seed favor with his loyalists. He’s rewarded greatly. He’s a man out to make a name for himself and to secure a future that offers what he sees as the best of everything—mostly reliant on money—and he, he believes, richly deserves it all. If he has to knock-out and walk over a few bodies to get there, okay.
My point is we each have to decide which kind of person we want to be. These aren’t decisions only these two men face. We all face them.
I’m reminded of the tax collector who became an Apostle. A man hated for doing his duty, his job. A man tapped on the shoulder by Christ and asked, “Will you?” That man said, “Yes, I will,” and he did. His life was never idyllic or easy. He struggled mightily and he wasn’t always treated with the dignity and respect he deserved. But he did amass loyal followers. He did accomplish his mission through his life’s work. Was he “successful?” Well, he changed not only his life but the lives of countless others—then and ever since, including today. That’s significant success, wouldn’t you say?
And I’m reminded of Judas, the betrayer who sold his soul for thirty pieces of silver. His reckoning came, and he ended up hanging himself. He discovered he had a conscience, after all, and the magnimity of his actions proved too much for him to bear. It’s noteworthy that those who recruited Judas lied to him—Jesus wasn’t to be harmed—but he was harmed. That “safety” assurance, no doubt, acted as salve to the wound in Judas’s conscience that permitted him to betray Christ. But the harm to Christ was Judas’s reckoning. And the burden of his part in it was too much for Judas to endure.
I’m not saying B will suffer a similar fate or that he should. I hope and pray he doesn’t. I hope and pray he examines his goals and aspirations, weighs the spiritual impact of them, and makes a serious course correction.
I am saying the observation offers an opportunity for all of us to see the value of taking action. We should weigh the spiritual impact of our actions on ourselves and on others. None of us are islands, right? The Apostle proved an ordinary person can have an extraordinary, lasting effect.
So that’s the tale of two men and a snippet of what I’ve observed people-watching online. I do want to say that I’ve met some fantastic people I have come to care about a great deal. And in case you’re wondering if there are any great people left in this chaotic world, I can assure you there are. Many great people both off and online.*