Hey, if you want some news that shouldn’t really surprise anyone, head over to Scientific American and download their 60-second podcast proving that today’s college students are less empathic than past generations. It shouldn’t surprise anyone because today’s students — of any age — spend so much of their time online, at arm’s length, where it’s perilously easy to judge.
I’ve been pretty clear how I feel about anonymous comments: they bring out people’s inner stupid. And meanness. But it’s become more than that.
There’s a reflexive judgment that occurs when you can view someone’s life from afar. You have no context, you have no consequences; no intimacy or extenuating circumstances. It’s sooo easy to judge: simplest thing ever. What’s more, it’s forgotten in a second. You’re on to the next post. Your timeline/newsfeed has updated!
Living shallowly amongst many, with few consequences, will fundamentally change who you are. Sometimes that can be fine; and sometimes not.
At least Facebook is a “walled garden.” Formspring is more like the vacant lot that everybody cuts across. Once you set up a profile, anyone can see it and ask you anything — anonymously if they so choose. In theory, you must answer.
Here’s how open it is: when I was trying to explain it to my colleagues, I told them they could look up my son — though they’re not friends with him in any social media sense. They were incredulous: “We can really look up some teenage kid we hardly know?”
Creepers. But I replied, “oh, yes. That is the Formspring way.”
As it happened, that day some idjit chose to inquire about my son’s anatomy. Well, about one part. That‘s what my colleagues read. And, that‘s why their eyebrows were somewhere up beyond their hairlines. Thankfully he had thus far declined any specifics.
(Note, I did suggest to son that since it’s well-nigh university visit time, he might want to delete those sorts of questions, otherwise he’d never really know what the admissions counselor was thinking during that all-important interview…)
You wonder why he sticks with it? Because he also gets the “I think you’re cute/hot/funny” genre of posts.
But beyond the idiotic, it can get serious. Stories are accumulating about cyberbullying, to the point of two suicides with alleged ties to Formspring in recent months. It’s something to have on your radar. And I can attest that this is not just media hype. There are even business models springing up around this — ReputationDefender will monitor your online presence and clean up nasty postings and photos for a nominal fee.
True, there are other reasons to lose empathy. We are more divided than we’ve ever been — you don’t even have to share news with people you don’t like; you can only listen to/read/watch sources you already agree with. So there’s no uniting around one human cause, forget that. Well not much.
And in America at least, though the recession has gutted many lives and lifestyles, we are still more comfortable and self-obsessed than in many places where teamwork is required to thrive.