This post has been a long time coming, but seems more pressing and appropriate than ever in light of recent events transpiring during the Alberta floods.

As far as sociocultural evolution goes, one must acknowledge that there’s been no bigger game changer in the last decade than the emergence of social media. Traditional media is also evolving, finding new opportunities, audiences and challenges delivering the news via the world wide web. The Internet is now firmly entrenched into mainstream daily life, giving us unprecedented access to information… and misinformation. In addition to our increased capacity to receive, we now find ourselves in a world where we have virtually unlimited opportunity to transmit. We can post comments on Facebook, Twitter, Instragram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, blogs, news articles, and the list goes on. No longer must we subsist on one brand of news, being fed a sole perspective, having no capacity to interact with our leaders and elected officials. We can research a news story fully, carefully considering all views and forming a fully educated opinion. We can interact directly – directly! – with leaders and elected officials at even the highest levels. What an enlightened bunch we must be… right?

Then we read the comment threads.

It is my fervent hope (please don’t wake me if I’m dreaming) that the disheartening state of the comment thread is simply a sign that we are going through cyber puberty. You remember puberty, don’t you? That stage of life where crazy hormones meant bad hair, bad skin, emotional outbursts and social awkwardness. A hard time where good nutrition, extra sleep and extra parental understanding was required. There was a whole lot pettiness, viciousness and drama. But we grew out of it – most of us.

The current state of the comment thread is horrifying. If you ever want to despair of humanity, read the comments on almost any news article these days. In fact, I recently “left” (as in un-joined) a group page on Facebook recently because it was just too toxic. No matter how much some of us tried to offer accurate, balanced information in a respectful way, the negative forces just continued to dominate. I got very, very tired of feeling exasperated. I do not miss that group.

Let me offer a few recent examples of the proliferation of misinformation and cyber-puke.

Case #1: A friend of mine is running in this year’s municipal election (not in Penhold). This very sincere, forthright lady has a 20 year-old daughter who has a number of challenges including Downs Syndrome, Celiac Disease and Diabetes. My friend has always, always advocated for her daughter but worked incredibly hard to help her daughter achieve independence. Over the years I’ve known her I have admired her commitment and strength. In a recent situation, she had to advocate for her daughter by filing an official complaint. An area newspaper picked up the story and ran an article. The comment thread was absolutely reprehensible. Comments ranged from all of the unfair advantages “these people’ (persons with disabilities) get, to my friend’s character – which all these folks could obviously comment on fairly since they know her personally and all… uh, no! – to her appearance, to her motives. I don’t know when I have ever been more disgusted. She is a PERSON. Her daughter, also a PERSON, is an ADULT and she is fighting to give her as much independence as possible. Persons with disabilities living independent lives – this is GOOD, people. How the heck does that translate into this lady is selfish and evil? I’m so lost on this.

Case #2: The Home Depot receipt. If you’ve been following the floods in Calgary, you have likely seen the picture of the receipt and all of the bad, bad press Home Depot has been getting as a result of charging someone $42 for a flat of water. This person bought the water… like, PAID for it, at that price… walked out of the store, took a picture of the receipt and posted it on social media. Needless to say it went viral very quickly and Home Depot, despite issuing an explanation and apology, has become the poster child for price gouging in the midst of disaster. The thing is that it may or may not be true. Let’s ignore the fact that this customer did not take issue with the price when standing at the register, did not go back in and talk to Customer Service, call Home Depot HQ or anything like that; let’s just look at the receipt. It says 24 @ $1.75. Here’s where I think Home Depot might be correct in saying there was a mistake. Clearly, the $1.75 is the price of an individual bottle of water. So it isĀ conceivable that the cashier accidentally scanned one of the bottles in the flat, instead of scanning the SKU for the flat itself. Or the flat could have been incorrectly priced in to the computer itself, priced at the individual price instead of the bulk price. These are easy mistakes that get made at big box stores every day. I’m not saying they WEREN’T price gouging, but I am saying that before we all jump on the assumption band wagon, let’s stop and consider that there MAY be another explanation.

I’m not innocent in all of this. I have jumped to conclusions myself at times. I have reposted things without checking snopes, or even the date on a video (ummm, it’s six years old and not even related to the caption… hellooooo!). I have sometimes misread intent – even CONtent – been unnecessarily snippy, said stuff I wish I could unsay. But I am trying to learn better. And I haven’t made a full-time job of it as it appears some have.

There are so many psychological elements going on with comment threads these days that I sincerely hope someone somewhere has a big fat grant to study the phenomenon. Going back to my cyber puberty theory, can we check back in five years and say, “Wow, what were we thinking?” Like plaid pants or 80s hair, I hope with all my heart that this unfortunate chapter in the life of the Internet will soon become a distant, moderately embarrassing memory.

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