I’ve always loved the old Spaghetti Westerns. Clint Eastwood rides into some frontier town covered with dust, mystery, and rawhide testosterone.
The Old West town he surveys is riddled with the oddest mix of characters: the snake-oil salesman bellows to anyone within shouting distance that he can cure all their ills; the preacher across the street shouts a solution to a different ailment–an eternity suffering in hellfire and brimstone; buxom prostitutes lean against brothel doors, selling their wares without uttering a single word; sentimental ladies stroll the boardwalk with modest dress and parasol, exchanging niceties; gold prospectors do a jig in praise of new-found riches; crowds in saloons are there for entertainment and the thrill of the game.
Now…imagine through some absurd use of creative license that Eastwood is transported through time and space to our present day and is given the knowledge to go on the internet and join such social networking sites as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.
Our slant-eyed cowboy saunters into these virtual frontier communities, and what does he find? Well, not snake-oil salesmen exactly, but he is immediately pitched with the restorative properties of the acai berry and the potency of Cialis. No gold prospectors, but he is quickly approached about the millions that are just waiting for him with investments in online marketing, real estate ventures, or bank exchanges with Nigerian-hired barristers.
Sure, Clint may not find some old-school preacher speaking of doom-and-gloom, but he is riddled with bible-thumping status updates and invitations to blogs where he can pause and reflect on his spiritual well-being. And even rawhide Eastwood blushes at photos and video advertisements that make those old-time prostitutes look tame by comparison.
Instead of the enticements of saloon gambling, he is barraged with games like Farmville and Mafia Wars. Poor Clint even finds his profile buried in virtual flowers and teddy bears offered by sentimental ladies. And finally, our befuddled cowboy quickly learns the acronym “TMI” as he’s inundated with some of the most inane daily-life updates by the ordinary folks in this online town along with hundreds of photos of babies, pets, and weekend barbecues from people he’s barely heard of.
After experiencing such a futuristic horror our hardened gunslinger runs screaming from his computer and hides under the nearest pillow, dreaming of the relative safety of that Old West frontier.
If you think about it, as dangerous as were the environmental hazards of living in the Old West, what seems more of a miracle is that anyone could survive the chaos of living with all those townfolk and their diverse interests and agendas. And while the online world of social networking is virtual, it’s also a wonder that we don’t all kill each outright or at least run screaming for safety–so many people with so many different expectations and pursuits trying to co-exist in the same virtual, frontier town.
Whether we realize it or not, most of us go online with inherent interests and pursuits, a pre-existing personality and makeup, and we subconsciously expect all those we interact with to basically fall in line. The fact that they don’t, or worse, that they expect us to be like them or want to enroll us in whatever program they’re into, comes as quite a shock. How dare they impose their Farmville, pet photos, or that get-rich sales pitch on us!
I’m sure I’ve tested some folks’ better angels with my blog advertisements or numerous status updates (including my unsolicited notice to my Facebook friends about today’s post!). No one’s complained, really, but I suspect I’ve been filtered or blocked by more than a few. I can be as guilty of this as anyone. News Flash: communities are full of imperfect people. So, probably all of us have, despite our best intentions, been insensitive to others’ expectations or spent too much time fuming over someone else’s infringements.
Just like living in any community, there are pros and cons to being part of these social networks. On the positive side, I have gained a great deal being online. I have made so many new friends, reunited with old ones, made new professional contacts, learned so many new things, and engaged in areas of dialogue I could never have found in the “real world.” Despite the things I find irritating, the good, for me, far outweighs the bad.
So, what’s the answer? I think the answer to behaving appropriately in the world of social networking is similar to the way we behave well in any real-world society. It’s simply by practicing The Golden Rule–to treat others as we’d want to be treated.
The Golden Rule is so simple and so easy. Why? Because I apply it by first focusing on my favorite subject-me! God really threw us a bone in the sense that the starting place for our love and compassion for others actually begins with our selfishness. It’s self-referential. I ask, ‘how would I want to be treated in this instance?’ Then the translation is simple. I treat others the same way.
So, for example: I personally don’t want someone to befriend me online and immediately start trying to sell me something, so I’m trying to get better at not inviting folks to my blog the minute after I befriend them (I am learning this one as I go). As another example, I don’t personally play Farmville, other games, or send gifts, but because I so often want people to listen when I reach out in ways they could find irritating, I typically accept all those flowers and teddy bears, and don’t block folks who constantly guilt me into helping them find their lost sheep.
It’s also helpful to remember that people most often do what they do because of need. People headed into the Old West frontier because they needed something. Freedom. Adventure. Spirituality. Commercial opportunity. Riches. Community. Here online, some just want entertainment, some want community, some want action, some want to make their first million, some want to just lurk quietly and be left alone.
Despite our diversity, one thing we certainly have in common is that we all have needs, and whether they’re casual or deeply felt, we’re all on here in hope that those needs might somehow get met. The Golden Rule is our path to this goal. But it says that we get our deepest needs met by first meeting the needs of others, or at least by being sensitive to those needs as we follow our own pursuits.
I’m not saying we aren’t right to use common-sense boundaries while online, whether it’s to protect our privacy, our safety, or simply our right to not be constantly hounded by spam, the latest sales pitch or some activity we find too frivolous for words. But, the boundaries we set should at least be equal to the respect we show for the boundaries of others when we ask them to accept whatever it is that we’re “selling.”
Part of the adventure of entering into a new frontier is that the future is bursting with possibility and opportunity. Imagine the possibilities that could come from reaching out to others online with grace and peace, especially when they least expect it…or deserve it. At the very least, it might bring a bit more civility to this wild, wild frontier town we’ve all come to live in.
Jesus said: “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)