You don’t know me. I don’t know you. We have never met. We might never meet. Yet, because everyone can now connect to anyone else, our paths may cross. It could be a Facebook post, a tweet, or a response to a blog post. The mechanisms are many and mostly unimportant. At that moment when we meet – virtually – I’m learning everything about you I can from the few words you provide.
I analyze. I project. What I think about your words says more about me than you ever said about yourself. We always see ourselves in others – the world is a mirror for our beliefs and prejudices – and where we have nothing else to go on, we fill the missing space with ourselves. This happens immediately and automatically all the time. We can’t help ourselves.
Face-to-face meetings provide the rich, sensual interaction we need to assess one another. We look into another’s eyes, watch hands move, note a smile as it dances across a face. We use all of this to draw up an opinion on another person. Online, we have nothing but a string of characters, glowing on a display, folded in with email and invoices and holiday snaps. We cannot assess, so we project, and worse, we amplify. Little things become huge.
I am constantly contacted by people I do not know. We all are. Beginnings are delicate times because so much rests on an almost impossibly vague series of messages. What does this person really mean? Is this a joke? What do they really want? So much to misread. So much to go wrong. This is where things break down.
When our first interactions with one another are filled with sarcasm, irony, or any of the other linguistic tools that make sense face-to-face, we develop mistaken impressions of one another. This person is too nasty. Or too snarky. Or just not kind. And why would I want to connect with anyone who comes off as a clod? Easier by far to avoid the entanglement with a block or filter.
In a networked world, first impressions matter more than ever. In the space of a few moments, we judge one another. We probably shouldn’t, but we do. We’re getting pricklier as we get more connected because we’re continually working from insufficient interaction.
At this point, I could simply recommend that everyone chill out, and take the time to let relationships develop in-depth. But there is an easier way. In the words of Bill and Ted from the movie of the same name: ‘Be excellent to each other.’ Because we do not know one another, those earliest interactions must be cushioned as much as possible. Best foot forward, we must remember that this is the first contact and that to everyone else, we truly are an alien species.
We’ve all had an experience of the first contact that left a bitter taste, permanently souring us on a particular relationship. We can avoid that if we remember that we are all aliens to one another. Aliens should never come down to Earth looking mean and holding weapons.
Not long ago, I bought some RAM to upgrade my aging Mac. Shortly after I made my purchase, I received an email from the proprietor of the firm, introducing herself and expressing her delight at being able to provide for my needs. It was a small thing – just a few sentences – but because that was my first interaction with these fine folks, it left a strong impression. That was followed up, over the next 24 hours, with a series of emails around the specifics of the delivery of my order. Never before had I had the pleasure of such a positive online shopping experience, and I know that most of my opinion of that business formed in the few moments after I received that first, delightful email.
A few weeks later, a friend mentioned that he was thinking of upgrading the RAM on his Mac, and I immediately recommended the firm I’d done business with. I wanted to recommend them because I wanted to share the good feeling they’d left me with. That word-of-mouth sale is the prize won for being excellent to one another.
Beginnings are special. We must remember to be on our best behavior because every connection is a potential friend or customer. If we don’t want to leave a trail of destruction in our wake, we have to be gentle with those we do not yet know.
The admonition to be excellent to one another might seem like nothing more than good old-fashioned common sense, another rephrasing of The Golden Rule – and so it is. The medium may change, but we remain stubbornly the same.
We want to be seduced, not confronted. We want whispers, not shouts. To get what we want, we must be gentle, kind, and sympathetic. Easy enough, and most excellent.
Mark Pesce is the co-inventor of the VRML, co-author of The Next Billion Seconds, and founder of Future St, a Sydney media and technology consultancy. He was formerly one of the judges on ABC’s The New Inventors.