That Escalated Quickly

A lesson about experiencing anger on social media

Have you ever been on Facebook or Twitter and had your mood derailed by a vicious comment on one of your posts? How did you respond? I had a dramatic experience on Facebook during just such an occurence, which ultimately demonstrated the caution and clarity that social media interaction often demands. There are some psychological issues under my belt, so I may be especially flammable when under ‘attack’ — be it in the form of unsolicited criticism, judgment of my character, or use of strong language. Yet in some instances, what I percieve as an ‘attack’ doesn’t always turn out to be a lit match. My creative interpretation — or misinterpretation, I should say — fogs my understanding of what is actually being said to me. I was recently reminded of this the hard way.

Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash

I had posted in a Facebook group (Refresher: a group is usually founded on a certain topic and may allow you to interact with strangers who are also group members). I’ve seen groups brimming with ‘trolls’ — those tiresome people who post edgy content with the express intent of causing offense, or who respond to other people’s content with sarcastic and demeaning comments rather than opting for common decency. As a highly sensitive individual, the last thing I want to do on the internet is deal with trolls. ‘Mean people suck’ is my mantra.

My post was, in a sense, much ado about ‘nothing’. To describe it in a sophisticated way, it was a lament over the feeling of ennui arising from having no remaining notifications — comments or messages to read and reply to — so shortly after logging in. What I actually wrote was: “That awkward moment when you’ve finished checking notifications and there is nothing else to do.”

The first two people to comment in response did so playfully. The third threw me for a loop. The comment sounded unnecessary and derisive as I read it; it mentioned quickly taking a bite out of reality before he, the one responding, melts into sobs. Um, okay…

That’s the moment I felt attacked. Who did this guy think he was? Who is this stranger reacting to my harmless albeit simplistic act of self-expression, adding his sarcastic two cents’ worth at my expense? Even had I not been hypersensitive to criticism and in a less psychologically vulnerable state, what gives some random person on the internet the right to mock me? Why, oh, why do people behave like such bullies!? I looked at his profile picture and saw it was an elderly man, early 70s, not the typical young troll I’d expect to go around making snide comments to strangers. Shame on him — I expected far better from an old fart. Shame on the random girl who liked his comment, too!

I was boiling inside, because it felt like I’d been branded as a childish brat, the kind who cries incessantly about ‘first world problems’, the kind who doesn’t appreciate getting out into nature, the social-media-addicted sort who can’t be desorbed from his screen for a second to engage with the so-called real world. It seemed as though the punishment for sharing a few vague words without deeper context was being summarily dismissed as an obnoxious millenial stereototype. That was my creative interpretation, so to speak, but I was pretty certain it was on the ball, given who it was coming from.

I resisted the urge to be mean back to him as I crafted a detailed reply describing my current state of affairs, that which prompted me to write the original ‘awkward’ post. Defensively, I explained that though I may sound like just another a whining millenial, I’m actually disabled. I’m an expat who lives in a third world country, where most people don’t speak my language, not to mention share my beliefs and interests. On top of that, I have social anxiety. My only connection to people whom I can confide in, at the moment, is via long distance, so as much I despise the medium, social media plays a part in keeping me sane. My only internet access is at a cyber cafe where I pay by the hour, after walking a ways to get there. And yes, it’s quite a letdown to come all that way and pay for nothing. I said all of this in a restrained, matter-of-fact tone.

Though I didn’t want to follow his example and engage in verbal warfare directly, it was tempting to avenge his brazen remarks in a passive-aggressive way. I had planned to screenshot everything, share it on my timeline with my friends, and write some nasty words about the old man to go with it. “Mr. House of Wax here looks like he’s already melted a long time ago,” was a front-runner. I was so angry.

Comparing myself with the old man, I thought righteously to myself, I would never do something like that.

Meaning I would never, ever read a single opaque sentence and thus conclude its author worthy of my condescenscion and insult. You can’t possibly know someone so well, so quickly, to weigh their strengths and shortcomings as a person, let alone have the right to judge them. Especially when it’s on the attention-span-deprived jungle of the internet. Having a commitment to these values of etiquette made me feel in some way ethically superior to approximately 90% of social media users.

I returned to Facebook the following morning, intending to take the screenshot and go forward with the plan, because I’d spent time stewing over the incident the night before and still didn’t feel any better. I think I even felt worse, the more I’d been thinking about it. I couldn’t wait to let off steam, express my anger and make an example of the old man, shaming him to my small audience of Facebook friends for being yet another schoolyard bully in a grown man’s body.

I went to the group’s page to take the screenshot and saw that there was a new comment from the elderly dude below my detailed explanation. With an eyeroll I began to read it.

He wrote that he’d never doubted my original post was “anything but real”. He described himself as an artist, a painter who takes a “bite out of reality” through his attention to details in the settings around him. He clarified that the melting into sobs quip was sarcasm about himself, not me. He further related to my oft-reliance on social media to aid with a certain emptiness that accompanies inactivity. He even went so far as to say he probably needs it as much as I do. Huh?

I re-read his first comment, the one which had provoked my righteous idignation. I carefully re-read every word, this time without injecting any of my own in between. “I take a bite out of reality… and very quickly, or else I may melt into sobs.” Followed by an old-school text smiley face. It now dawned on me that he was not, in fact, smugly chastising my attitude. He’d only been poking fun at himself as a means to relate to my situation. With my new understanding, the comment was innocuous. I had cause to feel relieved of my anger, but also very foolish!

Moments before, I’d been so sure that the person I was about to condemn and ridicule on my Facebook timeline had earned my retribution, make no mention of how pettily I was going to go about enacting it. Suddenly I discovered that I was the one who’d been in the wrong. I was the one who’d reacted to an innocent comment, twisted it into a different context, and was instantly up in arms. I was set to be the sole participant of the neutral dialogue who’d have transformed it into something uglier. I would have unwittingly been the guilty party.

This experience got me thinking deeply about the experiences that we all must have, as a society, over social media. My psychological issues and quality of life are partly to blame for my short temper, but perhaps what happened to me can happen in a multitude of other ways, between strangers, acquaintances… friends. Maybe it even happens to ‘regular’ people — those who are not usually so easy to offend... It seems one should exercise more caution than I did when reading and reacting to the content created by others on the internet. We’re exposed to these platforms daily. Some of us, like me, have become so conditioned to expect feelings of anger and outrage that sometimes it’s the first emotion we reach for, when it doesn’t necessarily fit the situation at hand.

Actual cyberbullying and legitimate cruel intentions aside, there’s also a subtler, more hidden danger on social media interactions fueld by our self-protective egos. It’s possible to read something written by a stranger and feel that we understand the meaning and intentions behind it, when in fact we’ve applied our own skewed interpretation and mistaken that interpretation for truth. I admit that I was sorely, embarassingly mistaken and I hope that by sharing my experience with you, you’ll avoid falling victim to the same folly.

Henry is an avid reader, writer, composer, and consumer of documentary films. He supports dialogue about mental health, race relations, and the LGBTQ community.

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