I got on Facebook in June 2007 but didn’t really start using it until July 2008. At the time, there wasn’t a well-defined code of Facebook etiquette, so I did what everyone else was doing. What everyone else seemed to be doing back in 2008 was posting tons of pictures of themselves and their friends on Facebook while tagging everyone involved, so I blithely jumped onboard. My friends and I were all young and beautiful, so everyone was happy and no one complained. When I posted a picture of myself and my classmates in March 2009, however, one of the people I tagged sent me a message asking me to take the photo down. I told her that I would just untag her, so she followed up to insist that I delete the picture entirely. I was a bit confused at first, but after another exchange of messages I apologized and did as she asked.
Now, of course, I would never post a picture of someone without asking for their permission first. Common standards of civil online behavior have evolved since Facebook went public in 2006, and I’d like to think that I’ve grown as a person and developed a more nuanced understanding of how social media works since then.
Earlier this year, someone sent me a link to a long comment my former classmate posted on a popular cosplay blog explaining how upset she was when she had to ask someone multiple times to remove a picture of her from Facebook. It’s likely that she wasn’t talking about me, but seeing her comment triggered my memory of this interaction. I’m not criticizing this person for being upset, because she had every right to be upset. The reason I’m telling this story is because it seems so strikingly obvious to me now that what I did then was thoughtless and wrong.
About a month ago, a friend of mine retweeted something that someone I used to know had written about a short conversation we had on LiveJournal at some point during 2012, when she was struggling with depression. I was also in a dark place at that point in my life, but my attempts to seek treatment had failed, so I was managing as best I could on my own. I therefore didn’t have any formal language to communicate my sympathy to her, so I left a comment on one of her posts saying something to the effect of “I hope you feel better soon, but in the meantime it sounds like you could really use a drink.” She sent me a long response telling me how insulting it was for me not to have taken her depression seriously, and how ignorant I was for not understanding that alcohol and anti-depression medication don’t mix. I apologized immediately but then, like an idiot, tried to excuse myself by saying that I didn’t mean to offend her – which is, of course, not something that someone who’s just been offended wants to hear.
Since then, there’s been an ongoing discussion on social media and in the broader culture about how conversations relating to disability and neurodivergence can and should play out. I now understand that the correct response to the situation I described above would have been for me to express concern at the escalating despair evident in my friend’s posts, to ask if there was anything I could do, and then to step away. I also recognize that it would have been appropriate in that situation to explain that I was speaking as someone who was struggling with depression myself. Talking about mental illness is always going to be tricky, and I don’t think there are ever going to be solutions that work for everyone. Still, it’s much easier to stay educated and informed about how to reach out to people who seem like they might need help in 2018 than it was in 2012.
Again, I’m not criticizing this person for complaining about the stupid thing I did, because what I did was obviously wrong. It was wrong of me to make a facetious remark about someone’s mental illness, just as it was wrong of me to post a picture of someone on Facebook without asking for their permission first.
I didn’t do either of these things out of a sense of malice; rather, I just didn’t know any better. That doesn’t excuse my behavior, of course, but I think this general situation is probably relatable to anyone who’s grown up along with the internet. We’re given rules about how to behave in real life, but we’re more or less on our own when it comes to figuring out how to be good people on social media. I think that, as a result, we’ve probably all done something that, in retrospect, was undeniably unkind.
After reflecting on these snapshots of my past self, there are two lessons that I want to take away. The first is that it’s important to learn from your mistakes and keep growing as a person. Second, and more specifically, it’s also important to give the benefit of the doubt to people who make stupid mistakes online. This is not to say that you have to perform emotional labor for everyone who insults you on the internet, because some people are just assholes. If someone does something offensive but seems to be coming from a good place, however, it can be useful to remember that it’s probably not personal. After all, social media hasn’t actually been around all that long, and we’re still figuring out the best practices for how to interact with each other online.