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The seeds of negativity are always there, but very positive seeds also exist, such as the seeds of compassion, tolerance, and love. The seeds are all there in the soil, but without rain they cannot manifest. Our practice is to recognize and water the positive seeds.

–Thich Nhat Hanh

What is it about strangers conversing on the internet that so often leads to a shouting match, or snark-off, or insult competition?

These modes of interacting are common among strangers on the internet, but incredibly rare in interpersonal space.

And why so? Have we forgotten how to communicate? Do we lose sight of all civility when positioned behind a screen, or behind the avatars created therein?

The truth is, it’s not that we’ve forgotten how to communicate with each other, it’s that we’ve never properly learned how to do it in the online sphere.

With the layers of removal from flesh-and-blood humanness that online platforms create, something is lost: These commentaries we come across daily aren’t simply “tweets” or “posts”; they are the thoughts and feelings of another human being who has beautiful eyes and a soul.

Why is it so easy to forget that? Or disregard it? Their pain and needs and feelings of love for their family are the very same as ours.

And yet our first response to others online is often to want to fight, or shame, or defeat with sharp wit, or dismiss and move on.

When we meet someone in person we shake hands and look them in the eye; we acknowledge them as a fellow participant in real human expression.

Online we scatter insults and condemnations like seeds to the wind. Do we even consider that the receiver is as lost and confused as we are?

We were never taught how to communicate in the online sphere, so we adapted; is a cacophony of mistrust and scattershot hatred what we want?

Is it what we are? I don’t believe so. I believe that the drive for love and harmony is one of the most real things that binds us as humans.

And we’ve created this online world out of nothing, and have imbued it with all of our beauty and hatred, and loosed our children within it.

Do we want our children to come of age, to learn how to communicate, how to treat other humans, in a mad symphony of rage and pain?

No one taught us, and so it is our responsibility to define what it means to discourse online and set the right example for those who follow.

As I can see it, there are two paths forward: one of spiraling sadness and world-loathing, and one of honest goodwill, leading to a healthy, robust online sphere.

It is on every one of us to vow to communicate with others with the full dignity of the human spirit in mind, even behind avatars online. As if seated across from each other in the same room, breathing the same air, beating the same heart in our chests.

We must search the rich soil within ourselves and water the positive seeds.

And we will hope that our children are taught how to communicate in the online sphere, because it means we will have learned it ourselves.

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Keith Gilmore

Keith Gilmore is a writer, speaker, and coach. He is co-founder of Texture Life Coaching, a life coaching platform serving clients in Portland, OR and throughout the country, and The Integrated Man, a program for reconnecting men with their purpose.

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