Why Facebook Turns Dr. Jekyll Into Mr. Hyde

A long walk down memory lane to the early days of social networking in the jewelry industry, in an attempt to answer the question: Why does Facebook turn us into monsters?

In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson’s protagonist takes a potion which converts him from mild-mannered physician to homicidal maniac. It was never explained what the ingredients were in that potion, but they seem to be present these days in online chatrooms, social media, and especially Facebook. Kind and otherwise gentle folk are sitting at home on their keyboards, turning into monsters.

The phenomenon was on display in a recent incident involving the jewelry industry, and I watched it live. Jewelry designer “X” had her designs featured in the online National Jeweler magazine website. Jewelry designer “Y” wasn’t impressed, and made disparaging remarks to that effect on Facebook.

Many of Y’s Facebook friends (also in the industry) began piling on, becoming increasingly shrill in their denunciation of Designer X. Things were spiraling downhill, when something unexpected happened. Jewelry designer “Z,” the uber-prestigious Erica Courtney, jumped on her own Facebook page and expressed shock and disgust that so many people were viciously attacking this poor, young Designer X.

Everyone paused, suddenly unsure. Then Erica’s Facebook friends began agreeing with her, and were unanimous in their denunciation of Designer Y. The friends of Designer Y saw this happening (it’s a small industry and we’re all on each other’s friends list). Over the next 24 hours, people began going-in and modifying their earlier remarks on Designer Y’s page. In some cases they deleted them. The collective ‘herd,’ if you will, had made a decision that Erica had the right of it, and they needed to get on her bandwagon, not Mr. Y’s. They’d chosen the wrong side. Erica’s page now filled up with people denouncing Mr. Y and those who had joined with him. Some of the language got pretty nasty there, as well. Mr. Y’s own Facebook page went quiet.

The next day I was online-chatting about the incident with Michelle Graff, editor-in-chief of National Jeweler. “What is it about the Internet that makes people so uncivil?” she asked. Michelle wondered if maybe it was a generational thing, and millennials and the like—having grown up with such communication—maybe didn’t morph into rude jerks like us older folk did. I promised to ask my own kids if this were the case, but in fact I’d seen the phenomenon before.

Polygon, which opened for business in 1983, was arguably the first social media platform for the jewelry industry. Primarily an online wholesale trading network for loose diamonds, it also included what we called “discussion channels,” or “message boards” as they would be known today. And people had a lot to message about, often with Mr. Hyde sauce marinating the conversations.

You think Facebook gets nasty these days, with political posts? Imagine, if you’re able, what happens when one diamond dealer believes another diamond dealer had agreed to reimburse return shipping if the sale didn’t go through. And the other guy says he didn’t agree to that. How many professional reputations did I see destroyed while two otherwise decent and honorable business people went nuclear, on national stage, over a $25 stamp or something equally petty.

Sometimes alcohol played a role. One morning my phone rang at 6:30 a.m., at home. It was a Polygon member, a jeweler from Indiana.

“I’m so sorry to call this early but I’m in big trouble and I really need your help.”

“What’s going on?”

“I just looked at what I typed last night on Polygon. Oh my God. See, I was drinking Scotch and, well, I just sort of went crazy. I should never have said those things. Can you go in somehow and delete that message?”

This was in the early days of online discussion, and revolutionary features like being able to delete a message you’d posted, didn’t exist. It would take a programmer going into the back-end of the software and doing it manually. But it was possible.

I assured the jeweler we’d take care of it, and we did. I can’t even remember what the drunken rant was about, but probably a vicious personal attack against another Polygoner.

The problem was that Polygon wasn’t just a message board. People were transacting millions of dollars a day in diamond business and, in that business, one’s reputation is everything. People worked hard to develop their reputations on Polygon, their personal brands, and even nicknames played an important part.

In the Polygon “club,” you weren’t known by your name, but by your nickname—similar to the early days of CB radio and “handles.” The printed Polygon roster of members even cross-referenced each business to the owner’s nickname, because otherwise it would have been useless.

And the names were quite colorful: Captain Cashflow (a refiner, who paid quick cash for sweepings), Packer Paul (a jeweler from Green Bay), Mountin’ Man (a specialist in mountings), Taters (a retailer from potato-rich Idaho), Halapeno, a wholesaler from southern California, Zoomer (short for Gary Zumbaugh, a Rolex dealer, who always signed his messages “Zoomer Out” as in “That’s all I’m going to say.”), and The Buffalo, a slender pawnbroker from Milwaukee who signed his messages with the quasi-threatening tagline: “The Buffalo stomps the terra!” And many others.

I even had my own nickname which started off pretty boring: JV, just my initials. I used to sign Polygon messages as -jv, because using my full name seemed pretentious. But “-jv” stuck, and customers began playing games with the hyphen. A tradition developed that when I did something good (like Polygon adding a valuable new feature), people would heap praise by calling me +jv. (Get it? Plus, not minus.) And when I did something bad, like release buggy software during the month of December—when jewelers do 80% of their business for the year—I was slammed and called –jv. A double minus. I think once I earned a triple.

One of our retail jeweler customers had a daughter, Jolene Stavrakis, who entered and won the Miss Minnesota pageant, and went on to place 8th in the Miss USA competition. She was a Polygon user herself and one afternoon, when we were exhibiting at the Minnesota Jewelers Show in Minneapolis—after she’d finished her paid gig as a spokesmodel for Wittnauer Watch—came and hung out at the Polygon booth for the rest of the day, to help me demo Poly. With her gown, sash, and tiara, she packed the booth with potential customers, but brought all sales activity to a halt. They just wanted her autograph. Yet it was good enough for a picture of the two of us, with her arm wrapped around me, on the front page of National Jeweler magazine. “Miss Minnesota Promotes Polygon” was the headline, which the editor told me later infuriated Wittnauer.

Everyone on Poly started kidding around about the picture, and making various lewd comments, until Jolene herself, with a great sense of humor and knowing how to shut them up, finally delivered a nuclear strike on the whole conversation by typing: “All I’m going to say is, he’ll always be ++ jv to me…”

The point is, nicknames mattered and became talismans, or spirit signs, that embodied one’s brand image. Anyone would send a quarter-million dollar diamond to Taters if she’d ask for it, or to Packer Paul, or to The Buffalo. Because their brand image was everything. No one cared about collateral or credit rating. These nicknames were larger-than-life brands, even though many of them were tiny retail operations. It didn’t matter. One’s online reputation was what counted.

When people who’d never met, ran into each other at Polygon conclaves they were finally seeing faces behind the nicknames. One guy went up to Gary Zumbaug, wide-eyed, and said: “You’re ‘Zoomer Out’?” Really! I’m finally meeting ‘Zoomer Out!’” He was a rock star because of his distinct handle, which in turn embodied his online reputation. In person he was mild and unassuming. Online he was an actor on a stage, larger than life.

And therein lies the answer to Michelle Graff’s question: why does going online so often change us? Yes, I did talk to my kids about it, but they claimed it had nothing to do with age. Their contemporaries morphed into Mr. Hydes just like mine did.

But as we thought it through, a clue emerged. Even online, two people instant-messaging each other wouldn’t be mean and vicious. They’d behave properly just as if they were having drinks in a restaurant. Normal rules of civilization would apply. It was only with public messages that the phenomenon of viciousness kicked in.

The lightbulb went off. Of course. That was it. When you’re commenting online publicly, you truly are on a stage. You’re playing to an audience. And you’re seeking audience approval. Everyone on stage, whether an actor or someone giving a speech at a trade show, seeks audience approval. It’s a fundamental human trait. How do you gain it? In an online debate, such as a political argument, there are two sides. And the audience is divided presumably between those who agree with you, and those who don’t. You’re playing to the ones who agree with you. So how do you gain their favor, their approval?

By flamboyantly attacking the other side, often with lots of foul language and exclamation points. Personal insults are especially useful in this regard. I’m tempted to provide examples but do I need to? We’ve all seen it. People who would be friendly and sociable on a phone call, or in a private message, or in person, turn into rude, nasty, f-word-hurling sociopaths when they’re performing on an online stage. They’re seeking applause not with hand-clapping but with its 21st century equivalent: number of “likes.”

A mild, conciliatory message won’t earn any. But a polarizing, nasty-gram from hell, demonizing the other person’s political views, will chalk-up likes at a gratifying rate. Your audience loves you. The person you’ve viciously insulted doesn’t matter. He’s the enemy, the opposing team. He’s not your tribe. The more you can put him down, the more you make yourself look good—to your tribe.

And you can get away with it online because there are few repercussions. You’re not sitting across from the guy in a bar. He’s not a real-life human being you’re interacting with on a phone call or even by messaging. Nope. He’s a stranger. You’ve not only never met him, you almost certainly never will. The online adversary is not really human; he’s just a collection of mean-spirited words typed at you, on a keyboard. So of course you counter-attack with your own insulting screed, while the audience cheers. There is no downside, and so many likes to harvest.

Among true Facebook strangers, there probably isn’t much of a downside, other than to one’s soul. But these days the line between work and play isn’t so clear. Ninety percent of my own Facebook friends are jewelry industry people, folks who could be customers in the future, or at least people I might meet. Those of us in that situation need to be careful. We can’t just play to our base.

So here’s a Golden Rule for Facebook messages: Could you say these words to this person, if they were sitting across from you at dinner? If the answer’s no, then don’t send the message. Change it to something you could say in person.

Human civilization has evolved social codes over tens of thousands of years. They keep us alive as a species. They help ensure we don’t drag each other into extinction. It’s called “being polite.” Social media, on its surface, may seem like an environment where those codes aren’t necessary—where entertaining one’s friends is the more important goal.

As the country goes online and tears itself apart politically these days, and morphs from a nation of Dr. Jekylls into murderous Mr. Hydes, there’s something we need to remember. In Stevenson’s tale, when Mr. Hyde is finally shot by the police, Dr. Jekyll dies too.

Those who lead a double-life as Facebook monsters might want to remember the lesson of Polygon: your online reputation is everything.

 

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