Here's Something: Anonymity is a social calamity

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Last week, I performed the dreaded deed of registering my car at the town hall. Fun, fun.

Because of work and a delay in the mail, it actually took me about a month to finally have the chance to physically get to the town hall to do what needed to be done to drive legally once again.

Because it can be hard to find the time to go to a town hall that’s only open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. (when most people are working), I really appreciate Maine’s relatively new Rapid Renewal online service. But since I recently purchased a car, I needed to make an in-person appearance. No online renewal for me this time, unfortunately.

But, you know what, while it was a hassle, it was also a fulfilling experience. I felt better when I left. I knew the job was done right. My registration was complete. The helpful woman behind the counter knew her stuff, and the complicated matter was put to bed. I didn’t have to worry if I had properly completed an online application.

Sure, it would have been more convenient to use an online portal to register my new-to-me car, but it was also nice to deal with a real person in a real place of business.

Real interaction is good. Virtual interaction is unreal.

In today’s world, fake interactions via the virtual world are becoming more routine for each of us, and it’s taking a social toll.

Besides doing required business and shopping online, which can be done by interacting with nothing but a computer mouse, I particularly worry about users of Facebook, Twitter and other “social” media.

I read the comments people post about my columns and wonder if these people would treat me in person the way they treat me online. One even said he hates me. Would he say that in person? Probably not. He feels comfortable, thanks to anonymity, to say whatever he likes online.

How can they stand acting this way? Do they not realize they say things in a virtual setting they never would in real life? Don’t they realize other people understand this and see through their online facade? Do they not realize they are wasting their time – and life – honing a virtual identity?

But it’s not just online interactions that are unwinding our social fabric. As a truck driver, I see the impact anonymity has on motorists. People do things on the road they never would otherwise because their car protects them in a cocoon of metal, plastic and glass.

Drivers cut others off, give the finger, tailgate, run stoplights, drive a million miles an hour and perform other less-than-civil behaviors partly because they know there’ll be no consequences. Very rarely does retribution result from a bad act of driving. Most of the time, the bad driver rides off without any trouble, except if a police officer witnesses the event.

The anonymous virtual world will be hard to beat back. I have no illusions. First, it was television that fostered less social interaction, and the digital world has only exacerbated our ability to avoid interpersonal interaction. Is it unavoidable that as we communicate more digitally and do our business virtually, rather than in person, we become more anonymous and less able to act civilly with our fellow man?

Also, will the bad behavior we see online today become the accepted social norm for tomorrow? I hope not. I hope there’s a backlash against virtual life. I hope we become real again.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.

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