The following is an excerpt from “Gracious," by Kelly Williams Brown

I’m afraid the Internet can be the very worst boyfriend. It lacks any sense of boundaries, tact, charm or discretion. It can be mean and never give it a second thought. You cannot teach it; it will not learn and if, someday, it doeschange, well, sadly, you will not be able to take credit.

It’s also astonishingly beautiful, something that instantly connects all of us to each other and the sum of human knowledge, experience, writing and art.

So it becomes up to you to call the shots — for your own behavior, for what you want, for what you will tolerate.

I’d suggest the following:

You are, in fact, completely and solely in charge of what you put into and take out of this great river of beauty and ugliness and humanity. You could spend nearly every waking hour on the Internet and have an incredible life, full of amazing people and support and communities you would not have found otherwise. You could spend every waking hour getting more and more upset as you look at the ugliest thoughts of people you will never meet, or tormenting yourself reading endless coverage of a terrible national tragedy that you, personally, cannot stop or control. You could spend hours crafting that perfectly devastating e-mail to your former friend, or you could write the next great American novel. It is up to you, and you alone.

Think of this as the “If you don’t have anything nice to say, it had better be worth it” principle. The Internet is a forum for human thought, and to say that you can never do anything but post the verbal equivalent of positive emojis is unfair and silencing. However, this is not an ephemeral conversation with your friend. The Internet is written in indelible ink. You may think you’ve erased something, but it is still out there, either encoded into the dark back end of some server or preserved via screenshot. Like butter or gossip, it cannot be unspread. Don’t ever hit SEND in anger because long after you’ve stopped caring, that message will still be out there, biding its time like a spider in the shower until it can emerge and try to lay its eggs in your ear (by this I mean, you never know when a bad joke or nasty comment might come back to haunt you with a whole lot more trouble than the precipitating incident was worth).

For whatever reason, we rarely apply the same level of scrutiny to Internet interactions that we do in real life. If someone wandered up to me and told me that I should be murdered, I would nod politely and grab the mace in my purse as I backed away. I would never take it personally. Likewise, I would never go sit in a KKK meeting and listen to what they had to say. So why lose sleep over every nasty comment made by anonymous strangers, and why engage with people you know are diametrically opposed to you, at least on this topic? Everyone can say whatever they want on the Internet, but to keep yourself sane and safe or from going crazy, you need to filter what you read.

Humans have been eating together for millennia, so we have pretty well-established practices. In contrast, we’ve been talking to each other on the Internet for about 15 years. If Internet communication were a human, it would be spending a lot of time slamming doors and telling their mom she sucks. But while Internet etiquette is constantly evolving, there are norms and you can pick up on them, if you pay quiet attention.

You can be someone who exists almost entirely online or someone who avoids the entire damned thing. No matter how much you use it, always ensure that you are choosing how to use the time you have in life. Do not let it be chosen for you.

Principle by principle, we each can make our corner of the digital world a place we want to be; a place where we connect and learn and grow and explore and basically do everything that a very upper-crusty preschool would promise to parents.


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