Long, long, ago in a period of my life that I have come to think of as “the lost years,” (otherwise known as law school), I encountered an internet forum for moms. There were forums for moms of toddlers, and others for dieters. There were rooms for new people and people from each state. There were religious groups and groups for discussing racial issues. There were news groups and coupon groups. There were also “Debate” groups and “Mean Girl” groups.
The “Mean Girl” groups sucked the unsuspecting into their presence through personal invitations meant to make the invitee feel welcomed into a secret circle. Once there, the newcomer’s personal profile was scanned to find photos, journals, and anything else that might reveal personal insecurities and vulnerabilities. The “Mean Girls” would dish out what they could. The clever and the thick-skinned fired back, and were welcomes into the tribe. The others left feeling hurt, violated and shocked by the level of meanness that could be dealt out by strangers.
The “Debate” groups were more to my liking. There, we discussed current events, mommy-wars topics like breastfeeding vs. bottle feeding, vaccinations, leashes for kids, and *gasp* the mean girl groups. Sometimes the distinction between the two types of groups blurred. Internet debaters can have a wicked way of getting their points across.
I spent a lot of time in one “debate group.” The group was filled with women who possessed quick wit and a snarky sense of humor. Somehow, I became one of the people on the “inside.” I belonged to secret groups and was an admin. We discussed situations with other members (and we discussed other members). My main online persona was generally thought of as kind and warm, but she had a mean streak, and it could cut deep.
One day, I reached out to a member who lived not too far away. We were going to meet in real life. She told me something about herself that she didn’t generally share in the group, and I did the same. I was nervous about meeting her, and she was nervous about meeting me. Before we had the chance, she shot me a private message asking if I had created another screenname that was meant to make fun of the condition that she had revealed. I was crushed that she would think that. We never did reschedule that meeting.
Along the way, a person (or persons) called Suzy_Sunshine joined the forum. Suzy was smart – really smart. Suzy was also very mean. She reached out to me in private message several times, but I was wary, and I never really engaged. Suzy sent the group into a frenzy with her meanness. Nobody and nothing was off limits for her commentary. Nothing was sacred. She hurt some people deeply with her words.
I thought that my own online person and Suzy_Sunshine were so different that I was absolutely shocked one day to read that several long-time members had decided that Suzy was an alias for me. I was aghast and posted as much. I was forced to recon with my own behavior. I was forced to examine my online behavior and own it.
I know there are some of you who will read this and chuckle. Others will be baffled. The short version of the story is that although I was never Suzy_Sunshine, I was guilty of playing the internet mean girl. Shortly thereafter, many of my “invisible friends” opened up their lives to me on Facebook. The more I saw of their real lives, the less inclined I was to think of them as faceless entities sitting in front of a monitor.
Another invisible friend with whom I had gone through a falling out pointed out several instances where I had talked about others who believed I was their friend in an unkind manner. My sharp, pointed wit was pointed out where my words had been used to wound rather than to uplift. In short, I behaved badly, and I had to own it.
I have come to count on those invisible friends a great deal. I share many thoughts, ideas, achievements and fears with them. They have lifted me up, made me laugh, shared their insight and trusted me with their own fears. I have watched their little ones grow into teens and young adults. I know the names of their children, their husbands and their pets.
The internet can bring out both the best and the worst in people. I’ve seen myself on both ends of that spectrum. I no longer have to prove that I am right on the internet – not that I’m not tempted sometimes! Anyway, I was never Suzy_Sunshine (and I’m not sure I want to know who was), and I hope that I’ll never again be mistaken for someone who would intentionally hurt even an invisible person somewhere on the internet.