It’s Complicated: Navigating Friendships When Your Bestie Gives Bad Internet

Offline, she’s educated, considerate, hysterically funny, a feminist. Yet this online bitch is seriously making me re-evaluate our friendship.
Publish date:
May 30, 2012
social media, friendship, tech

My really good friend from way back when has gone skank. Let’s be clear: It’s not like she’s slutting it up in a liberating, fun way. Instead, she drunkenly declares slutdom, peppered with declorations of why men should treat her poorly, how she’s like, kinda stupid, and when it comes down to it, not worthy of love (much less like).

And her MO in front of a camera has evolved to an unsavory mix of virgin and whore poses. It's enough to warrent walking away from our friendship, right?

But here’s the thing: Homegirl only lets her spaz de la huerta fly online. Those declorations of self hate? All made via tweets and Facebook posts. Same goes for the desperate, finger-in-the-mouth headshots and pantless posing. (Note: that shit only works when you spike it with confidence. See: Gaga, Lena Dunham.)

Offline, she’s educated, considerate, hysterically funny, a feminist. Yet this online bitch is seriously making me re-evaluate our friendship.

How can I keep company with someone who obviously has such different values than I? On the other hand, why should I let this online version of her disrupt an otherwise good friendship? And am I being judgy for considering this stuff in the first place?

To help resolve why we present different versions of ourselves, I decided to talk to the scholars that study this stuff. I enlisted the help of Dr. John Suler, a professor of psychotherapy and spychopathology at Rider University, and cyberpychology pioneer who specializes in online identity, and Danah Boyd, a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research, academic and scholar who studies social media.

Here’s how they explained our online behavior and totally put me in check. An online identity is no less authentic than an offline identity. Words like “virtual” and “second life,” which get thrown around a lot when talking about ‘net existance, might have us believe/indicate that what we do online isn’t as true to self as what we do when were hanging face to face. But research shows that our online and offline selves are equally authentic.

So my “That’s just not like her” reaction to hearing a smart, feminist friend wage an all-out smear campaign against herself? Totally wrong. The insecurities I’m witnessing (and am reactionarily offended by) are a valid part of who she is. She just doesn’t express it face to face.

Typing our thoughts and feelings can be so much more liberating than expressing that them in person. And it’s not just because of the standard “we’re batshit crazy, egg-avatar having cowards ready to spew anything anonymously” reasons either (athough that doesn’t hurt).

Check this out:

• When we type/tweet/post stuff online, we do so with a degree of invisibility. People can’t see our facial expressions or hear our tone of voice when we communicate this way, which totally evolves our ability/ freedom to talk smack and other unpleasantries. Consider the conversational time lapse provided by/inherent in typing, tweeting and posting; Sure, people might tweet us back or reply to a post, but they won’t do it as quickly as when in the flow of a live conversation. And lots of times, people won’t respond to our salicous post or tweet at all (which is perfectly fine, if not the goal, when we’re typing to vent anyway, right?)

  • We don’t register or see authority figures online as much as we do when in a room with skin-and-bones/real, live people. Online, we all seem pretty equal, so were more willing to say whatever we damn well please.

• We think we’re talking to a curated audience when online. Many of us will bring the nasty online in a way we probably wouldn’t in person because we perceive a heightened sense of privacy.

There are plenty more reasons why we grow less inhibited online. For the full breakdown, check out Suler’s paper on The Disinhibition Effect.

Suler kindly points out that no matter how old we are now and what soul-searching phases we’ve endured in offline life, we are all adolescents when it comes to online living.

He’s got a point; Facebook (the general public version) and Twitter have only been around for six years. And Tumblr and Instagram are even newer. So, no. I can’t expect my grown-ass friends to act their offline age when typing teenage-esque hate rants.

People want attention. They want to be loved; they want to feel connection. No matter what the situation, online or off, says Danah Boyd, adding, “and people do all sorts of things to achieve this -- good, bad and ugly.”

So instead of uncerimoniously dumping my friend for expressing online what she doesn’t feel safe expressing in person, maybe I should get back to basics by responding to negative online displays with some offline love and attention?