DEAR MISS MANNERS: I learned the hard way the necessity of being very, very polite on the Internet.
I made the mistake of pointing out in a chat room that a doomsday article being passed around (content: the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had resulted in a crack in the ocean floor that was going to destroy life as we know it) was written by a prominent hoax writer and was thus likely not true.
My intent was to soothe people’s fears, but I got on the wrong side of another Facebook poster. I made the mistake of responding to her nonsensical comments a bit flippantly, which brought on a barrage of personal invective, complete with observations on my character, lack of compassion, etc., all from a perfect stranger.
I managed to extricate myself by simply refusing to reply in kind, but it took superhuman discipline. I noted with satisfaction that her most recent postings included a justification of her initial gullibility by appealing to famous psychics as authorities who had assured her the continent would split into two parts in the near future.
This unpleasant and undignified altercation has taught me that I must always be extremely polite when chatting with other Internet posters about whose mental state I have no knowledge. As my son observed, “The Internet is not about freedom of speech. It’s about the freedom to not get punched in the nose.”
I think I know where I went wrong, but would Miss Manners care to add her own thoughts on this subject?
GENTLE READER: With due respect to your son, your freedom does not protect you from being punched in the nose, except in the sense that your nose is not directly available in such exchanges. As you have discovered, you are not protected from being insulted.
Miss Manners is glad that you have learned to be polite on the Internet. The hard way seems to be the only way that people learn how to use the Internet – not only to be polite, but to think before they push Send and to check whether they have pushed Reply All instead of Reply.
She hopes you will apply this lesson more widely: If you do not exercise your right to be rude, you are less likely to inspire others to be rude to you.