Anonymous online abuse: it’s all about crabs

I wrote this a few months back. With every second social media post now slamming “the wealthy” (whatever we individually percieve “wealth” to be, it may be appropriate to publish it again here . . .

Many years ago I heard a story about why fishermen never need to put a lid on a barrel of crabs. Apparently, when one crab climbs up the barrel and heads toward freedom, the rest pull him back into the barrel.

Now, this is only a good story if you’ve come across crabs, not those of the fisherman or even those that require medical attention, but those that populate the very places you think you’re going to find delight, and perhaps, someone to share it with you.

I recently had my first novel published on a well-known “get your downloads here” website, which I won’t name in order to protect the crabs. Delighted with my feat—I sold twenty copies in thirty-six hours—I committed the unthinkable crime of posting a note to the wrong message board. No, really—in cyberspace, this is the equivalent of stabbing a small child or a grandma in the eye, apparently.

I was very quickly reported by a crab, and rapped over the knuckles soundly. I apologised, which served only to bring more crabs up from the bottom of the barrel and the game was on. I was clawed, mauled, and thoroughly shredded. I was crab-caked, in fact. Not a crab had the courage to call their mates off and let me climb, suitably chastised, out of the barrel.

Is the anonymity provided by “screen names” on the Internet breeding a whole new population of crabs? Or have they always been there, lurking in damp corners, waiting for the opportunity to pounce?

The Internet—which I believe to be the single biggest communications event of our lifetime—is miraculous in its ability to get messages around the world in just seconds. Now, imagine if those messages were positive—or, at the very least, honest? Imagine if they uplifted us, rather than ripped us apart? Never before have so many been given a voice; never has it been so easy for any one of us to access one another with a book, a song, or a video clip. But, it has also launched a platform from which people can spill vitriol and bile, in complete anonymity, with little or no concern for the damage they do.

Consider a company that has made it through the recession and is even growing a little with the potential to employ one or two of the many unemployed: it takes just one crab to start pulling that company back into the barrel. An entrepreneur gets a great idea for an online business and does all the legwork required to get it off the ground. Wouldn’t the Internet and social media be the perfect place to laud the innovative entrepreneur and assist with his or her success? It would be if it weren’t for the crabs…

As a writer, nobody is more pro “free speech” than I am. I am, however, also for “responsible speech,” and this is where it gets personal. I don’t need a government or a committee to tell me when my words are going to be damaging. If I’m grown up enough to type, I’m grown up enough to know that what I write may have impact. It’s a personal thing, something we shouldn’t have to be forced into by laws.

Next time you’re about to post something to a website, maybe stop a minute and consider whether it’s going to delight or damage. Be happy for the crab that gets out of the barrel and learn from it, rather than tugging it back in. The world could use a little uplifting and, while it’s easier to be a crab, wouldn’t it be a superb reflection on you (anonymous or not) if you were gracious and encouraged success?

Dianne Bayley is a freelance writer and social media expert from Johannesburg, South Africa.

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