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It struck me the other day, stuck in traffic, watching some asshole purposely cut someone off who was driving too slowly, that urban driving is a lot like surfing the Internet.

Every time I encounter obnoxious online commenters, I wonder why the percentage of idiot jerks is so much higher on the Internet than real life. And it’s plenty high enough in real life, as I notice every day during my commute. The answer’s pretty simple, of course: anonymity brings out the worst in us. Or is it the truth in us? I’m certainly crankier online than with off-line people I don’t know well, though my friends will tell you I can be plenty snippy in person.

Haiku for You recently received a haiku request to illustrate this very phenomenon. In part, the request read:

Some of the people who comment on these boards are friends of mine in real life and it is amazing how—safely cloaked by the impenetrable mask of the Internet—they assume arrogant, belligerent personalities they would never adopt in reality.

It is all such a charade, one undoubtedly perpetuated by web surfers across the country, all of whom are donning thinly veiled disguises so they can beat up on each other without remorse.

The haiku result:

A wise — not belligerent—commenter replied:

The question is which is the real charade—their real life persona or their online angry and judgmental persona? It’s a bit frightening to think about when you filter through the comments on most websites or worse, when you’re the one under attack for an article, a film or even just another comment of your own.

I’m inclined to agree with the commenter. I think a scary percentage of us have this seething rage bubbling just underneath the surface, ready to be unleashed at the slightest provocation. There’s nothing like someone who writes something you disagree with on a website with an open comments policy, or who cut you off in traffic, to bring it out.

A couple of mild-mannered people I know have made off-hand comments about experiencing road rage every day. Not rage directed at them, mind you, but theirs directed towards others. I was baffled. But then I drove with people who would never yell or shove someone in person, people who hate confrontation face to face, but get them inside a giant chunk of steel and they’ll obnoxiously honk, give the finger, tailgate, and generally be just as dangerous on the road as the jerks they’re protesting.

Whether it’s the anonymity afforded us by the Internet or a windshield, it’s interesting to ponder what the true self is, the one acting brave behind the impenetrable machine, or the one abiding by the niceties of social conduct?

That was supposed to be the end of this post, until I read an e-newsletter from Social Signal with a link to this blog post, Five ways to shape the soul of the Internet, which offers a much more productive conclusion.

It’s a little mushy for my tastes, but it was also inspiring. The basic message is Ghandian: Be the change you want to see on the Internet. Visit sites that reflect your values. Approach each online interaction as if we were encountering a good friend. Let down your guard (but not too much). Contribute. And make financial transactions based on your values.

There are lots of good points there – and writer Alexandra Samuel introduced me to the cool site Etsy, a place to buy and sell things handmade – but for me, the simplest and most important takeaway was to resist the urge to trade hostility for hostility, or to fight willful ignorance with smug superiority.

That could apply to driving, too, I suppose, if we were to take the lesson that we should treat fellow drivers as though they were friends and not adversaries, people to be extended consideration instead of hostility, whether they deserve it or not. Because we deserve it, and only we can create this shiny happy new roads, just like only those who value the community spirit of the Internet can create it.

As Samuel puts it:

The Internet is too powerful and too pervasive to be left as the province of people who don’t need or value interpersonal connection. Every online encounter that dispenses with personal affection in favour of brusque efficiency or places self-protection ahead of empathy for others, pushes the Internet towards an online culture that is as pathological as our worst offline moments.