Recently, (and by recently I mean the last several months) there have been a number of conflicts here among those of us who most frequent this place that BooMan has created. Conflicts that have led to injured feelings, angry words directed toward other posters, and in some instances the departure of some very prominent members of this community. People that I have been personally saddened to see depart.

Among these, perhaps no one has been more missed by me than Susanhu, but I am certain that many of you can say the same about any number of other writers who no longer grace us with their presence. Everyone who has felt the need to move on has left a gap, and opened a wound among those of us who relished hearing their voices and reading their stories.

I am not a particularly wise person. I am not more passionate or intelligent or perceptive or caring than anyone else here. Indeed, I consider myself far inferior to many of you in those areas, and I know for a fact I am not as good a writer as any number of you whose diaries I cherish reading, even though happenstance and fate have gifted me with the opportunity to appear on the front page of this blog. So I can’t assure you that what I have to say to this community at this time will be especially helpful or constructive. Nonetheless, I feel the need to speak out, even if what I have to say may be woefully inadequate, and may benefit no one other than myself.

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All communities are fragile things, and none more so than communities which depend solely upon the written word to communicate the myriad of thoughts and emotions, ideas and understanding, upon which all communities rely. On-line communities are sui generis in this respect. We have no way to judge a person’s intent other than the symbols they place upon a screen. We cannot look into their eyes as they speak, cannot assess tone of voice or body language, see the quick smile or the hurt look, sense the need for acceptance even as we hear angry or spiteful words uttered by their lips.

Nor is there the chance to take a person aside to comfort them or to engage them one to one in order to draw out the deeper meaning of their thought, a meaning of which perhaps they themselves are not fully aware. Most of all, what we struggle with online is a lack of immediacy — immediacy in response and immediacy in understanding. We cannot see the effect our words have on others, cannot truly sense the hurt or despair others feel at what we have said, cannot clear up misunderstandings that we could recognize if we could see them register on the faces of those to whom we have spoken. All we have are words, composed after a lag of time, and fashioned in the same ignorance of our intentions that we have of theirs.

Human beings are social animals. Our brains have developed to take in a vast array of information about our fellow animals, and from that glean what is most relevant for assessing the hearts and minds of our associates. Without the full extent of that information, which is normally available to us in face to face encounters, we are in a very real sense blind. Is it any wonder then that our judgments of others here can go so easily awry, when all we have to share are our written communications?

All of us came here for our own reasons. Some, like me, may have followed particular writers here, because we so admired what they had to say and the manner in which they had to say it. Others, because friends who they had found elsewhere online invited them to come here and join this community. Still others may have stumbled upon this place and, having discovered like minded individuals and a common outlook toward the ever frightening events of our times, decided to stay and participate with those of us who were already here. Whatever the reason, whatever the motivation for joining this online family (for it is a family) we have all chosen this place and found something in it that we could not find elsewhere. It is the need to find others who feel the same outrage at the tumultuous and sinister events of our times, and who share our ideals and goals, our hope and despair, which binds us together.

Yet, paradoxically, that same commonality can also keep us apart. Because we are all very different people, with very different life experiences. Many of our educational and occupational backgrounds differ one from the other. Our ages and our genders, our childhoods and our nationalities and our ethnic and racial heritages all differ. Some of us are disabled in either body or mind, or, as in my case, both. Some are more sensitive to criticism, others more immune to confrontation and its effects. Some have an aggressive or angry online persona, others a more passive or phlegmatic one. None of us can see each other to fully assess the type of individual with whom we correspond. We have no shared history apart from this place. All we have to judge is what we read, and that can lead to grievous errors, for how and what we write is often very dissimilar to the personalities we exhibit when we are not online.

Let me use myself as an example (indeed, I am the only example I should use). I have been online now since 2001, participating in various forums and communities, from those devoted solely to politics, to others devoted to poetry, law, philosophy and history. In each instance I show something a little bit different about the person I am, a thin slice of my true self as it were.

In poetry forums I am cautious because I lack a background in literature, and I tend to relate to people very carefully, praising their efforts and seeking greater knowledge from those who I sense are better writers of poems than I.

In history forums, on the contrary, I often came across as a know it all, someone at times a bit overly pompous and assertive of my own opinions, because history has long been a favorite subject of mine, one I have pursued over the course of my lifetime. I displayed there the arrogance that many of us can present to the world with respect to areas in which we assume (rightly or wrongly) that we have a certain expertise that others lack.

In philosophy forums I played the student to those who I knew had a greater knowledge of their subject than I did. On the other hand, I was often quite combative to those who professed beliefs with which I strongly disagreed. I had long and fruitless arguments over the nature of free will, or the origin of moral behavior. Indeed, on certain sites devoted to the philosophy of Ayn Rand I was even described as a troll because I was constantly questioning (and mocking) the validity of beliefs that her devotees so adamantly assert as the sine qua non of human existence.

In my political posts I can present myself in a variety of poses, though the use of sarcasm, outrage and despair often tends to dominate my writing, especially when I am in a hurry and take little time to moderate the deep anger I feel at the way our country has been diverted into evil by the current leaders of the Republican party. In a word, I can be quite shrill, and I make no apologies for that.

But none of the writing I’ve posted in these very different environments, addressed to very different audiences, truly expresses who I am in my opinion. And the same is true for each of you who post here. For no words can express all there is to know about any human being, not even the words we write about our own lives.

I was very fortunate last September, because I had the opportunity to go and meet a number of you when my son and I traveled to Washington, DC for the antiwar protest march. I had an opportunity to spend real time with many of the people that I knew of only through what they posted here at BT, or at the other liberal blog communities I frequent. And the effect of that face to face meeting was very liberating for me.

Meeting Salunga and Supersoling, Damnit Janet and Military Tracy, Tampopo and Boston Joe, Cabin Girl and RenaRF, BooMan and Mary Scott O’Connor, Teacher Ken and Pastor Dan, and so may others, was a revelation. For the first time I could put faces to names, voices to written words, and three dimensions of flesh and blood to what I had only perceived dimly through the 2 dimensions of my computer screen.

No one was quite what I expected, not even Mary Scott O’Connor, who perhaps came closest to her online persona of anyone I met, and yet still had aspects to her character that I would not have guessed she possessed had I not had the pleasure of meeting her face to face. Frankly I came away humbled from what I had learned about these people, and humbled even more by how wrong so many of my assumptions about them had been.

To give but one brief example, based on what I had read, I expected Military Tracy to be consumed by anger and fear for her family and friends serving in the military. I was not prepared for the warm and generous spirit she displayed, and the calm outward strength she exhibited. She was nothing like I had expected, because I had made the fundamental error that I think many of us make here: I simplified who she was by considering only what I had read in her diaries and comments. But that is far too little, far to few data points as it were, on which to base an opinion about someone’s character or personality.

Perhaps many of you have made the same mistake about someone who posts here, someone with whom you may have had a confrontation that you didn’t expect and which led to anger and bitterness on your part. It is all to easy to forget that written words can deceive easier than they can reveal, and misunderstandings and hurt feelings are far more likely to arise when we cannot see the person who is speaking to us across this impersonal void we refer to as the internet. Yes, it can connect many of us across great distances, but it can also hide the person to whom we are attempting to communicate, and that is its greatest weakness.

I am willing to bet that those who met me in Washington last Fall were very surprised to discover that I am not much like I appear in print: less assertive, and much more shy and awkward socially than I may come off in the diaries I post here, or in the comments I make to others’ diaries. I suffer from depression, fatigue and numerous physical ailments. And I struggle every day to find the words to write to justify my position here at Booman Tribune, a position I rarely feel I deserve. A person less intelligent, less moral, and less wise that I sometimes try to pass myself off as.

So what is my point? Not a very large one perhaps. Not a startling revelation or brilliant analysis of the group dynamics of online communities. No, it is far less profound than that; a prayer almost. That we all remember the limitations of this medium, and also remember that on the other side of the cables and wires which divide us from each other sits a real person, much like you, with the the usual catalogue of hopes, fears and foibles to which our species is so often prone.

A real person who may not understand what you have written, or who may write something that you find offensive which he or she never intended to cause such distress. A real person as likely to make mistakes of judgment as you are, as likely to say reckless and hurtful things in the spur of the moment (and under the cloak of internet anonymity) as any one of us are capable of doing. A person as needy and unhappy one moment, and as loving and caring the next, as you or I. In short, another human being who deserves our respect, compassion, and sometimes our forgiveness.

And that is all I have to say.

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