Strangers on the Internet

The other day, there was a big discussion going on under one Instagram post of Carrie Hope Fletcher. Someone commented that she looked tired in said photo which led to many others saying that she didn’t, that she looked beautiful and that the person who wrote that was nasty and mean and disrespectful. Carrie herself replied several times. What intrigued me the most about that discussion (I honestly don’t care if someone looks tired or not or is wearing make-up or not as long as they’re happy) was a comparison Carrie made between talking to a stranger on the street and to strangers on the Internet.

What she said was: Would you actually say that to a stranger if you met them out and about and they happened not to be wearing make up? If not, don’t comment it.

Now, I would like to make clear that the following goes completely away from the question whether it’s polite or disrespectful to tell someone they look tired, no matter if you know them or not or if you say it in real life or on the Internet. That is not what I want to discuss here because apparently, opinions differ on that.

Carrie’s comment got me thinking about strangers and the concept of strangers on the Internet compared to the real life out there. Everyone, I guess, was told as a child not to speak to strangers on the streets and, another guess, as adults we mostly still don’t. Apart from maybe asking for a direction and even that costs me, personally, a lot of effort: to ask someone I don’t know at all such a very basic question.

On the Internet, however, I basically „talk“ to strangers all the time. If I only communicated online with people I knew, then my Twitter timeline would be very empty, I wouldn’t have any YouTube videos to watch and I could quit writing this blog this very minute. I love getting to know, following and interacting with people I don’t know via social media and I think most people do. I love finding „interesting“ people to communicate with, people that share the same interests, be it football or the theatre. I love being able to get to know other ways of living, other cultures and communicating with people all around the world.

Are these people strangers to me? In a way, yes, they are, because I’ve never seen them in person, I’ve never heard their voice and they’ve never heard mine. I don’t know them except for what they choose to show and and reveal of themselves on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. And I have to say, it is easy to forget sometimes that what we get to see of other people’s lives on the internet is only that: An extract, big or small, of what they want to share with the whole wide world, the world wide web.

It is easy to forget because on the other hand, you often feel like you know the people you follow, even more so when you have ‚conversations‘ with them, albeit in written form. When people let you take part in their lives through sharing pictures and videos, it is easy to forget that you might communicate with each other but you still don’t know that person. You don’t know him or her in the way you know your friends. They’re different from the strangers you see on the streets every day but they’re also different from your friends. You’re not strangers with each other but you’re also not non-strangers.

There is no term for what you could call the people you know but don’t know at the same time. And lines tend to get blurry when it comes to Internet communication and social media ‚friends‘. Carrie went with the term ’strangers‘ but I don’t think it completely covers it. I’m pretty sure she is also aware that many people following her online might not think of her as a stranger but more of a friend or a big sister and thus don’t think as much about how to phrase things or what is appropriate to say and what isn’t. Couple that with the fact that most online communication is written communication. A typed sentence, black words on a white screen, can have a lot of power and leaves lots of room for imagination and interpretation.

Don’t say to strangers on the Internet what you wouldn’t also tell strangers on the street. I think what it comes down to at the end is: Don’t say to people on the Internet what you wouldn’t say to people in real life, strangers or friends or anyone. Because after all, I don’t talk to any strangers on the streets at all but I do comment on tweets and posts and pictures of people I don’t know personally on the internet.

In Germany we have a saying, ‚der Ton macht die Musik‘. If you translate it literally, you get something along the lines of „the sound is what creates music“, but basically it means something like ‚it’s not what you say, but how you say it‘. Or, as someone else commented under the post in question: Wording is key. Then again, this is something that applies to all means of communication, both in real life and on the internet. Whether you talk to strangers on the streets, to people you know or to social media acquaintances: Bear in mind how what you say might come across to the other people. And that might just be that little bit more important when conversing with people who don’t know you as your friends might know you. Who don’t know your sense of humour. Who don’t get to hear your voice or see your face and only read what you’ve typed in your phone.

Strangers or friends? I assume how you refer to people you know on the Internet is different for everyone and even for one person, it might be different with different people. It is probably worth to think for a moment before sending a comment about how what you’ve typed might be perceived at the other end. That might solve a lot of problematic situations or misunderstandings – between strangers and between friends.

I want to make it very clear that I’m not at all intending to be disrespectful to Carrie. If she doesn’t like a comment that is made on her post and if she feels it’s rude, then it’s her right to act accordingly. Full stop. I find her a very thoughtful person and I admire how she always considers the fact that she’s a role model for lots of mostly younger girls who follow her on social media and watch her videos and might take what she says at face value.

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