Niceness happens in pockets

This is my attempted (re)beginning of writing three pages every day in the morning. It's a sort of therapy for me. A lot of stuff finds itself circulating in my mind, then lingers and pollutes it. It's become exhausting to think, I should write this down, and expand on it to learn more about it, then never following through.

Writing three pages every day is something I learned from The Artist’s Way. At first I thought it would be impossible, that I couldn’t possibly find something to write about every single day. But several months ago, I did this same exercise and found that not only was it possible, it was also extremely easy.

The trick is to write without thought. The cogs of your mind are spinning and producing thoughts whether you want them to or not. This exercise then is about transcribing this free flow of thought on to paper, without judgement. Seth Godin described it as something like:

One never gets talker’s block. Because you just say what you think. Similarly writer's block is a myth, because you just write what you think.

That really changed the way I look at writing daily, taking it from this grand impossible to a plain plausibility.

I write on actual paper when I do these exercises, since it’s more conducive to free flow. On computer, I might be tempted to hit the backspace key all too often. Paper allows room for imperfection. Computer underlines everything with red. It’s not its fault. It doesn’t know any better.

I try to write about things that might be useful to me in the future. Yesterday—ok wow. I don’t know if it’s the coffee, or it’s this book I’ve been reading on time and quantum theory, but I wrote the word “yesterday” and experienced a mental crash. What is yesterday? What is the physical yesterday? I guess I meant to say, “the continuous stream of consciousness I experienced before it was interrupted by a long sleep”—yesterday, I was thinking about niceness.

I’ve been recently captivated by why we become different people on the internet. On large scale websites like Twitter and Reddit, people (we) act different than they would in a small physical community. And this behavior tends to be more extreme on the mean-ness scale. Twitter is a meaner place than your grocery store. But why? We tend to blame the product design of sites like Twitter and Facebook for not being conducive enough to niceness and amiability, but I’m starting to think it might instead be the product design of human beings.

Several years ago I lived in a 52-story building in the heart of Chicago’s West Loop. There were so many residents that I would hardly see the same face twice. So, you wouldn’t really make conversation in the hallways or elevator. Most people would just look down as they walked. I lived in that building for six months and did not learn the name of a single “co-resident”.

The next building I move into, on the edge of River North, was a little smaller—7 stories, with about 10-15 units on each floor. This time, I found myself conversing at relatively greater lengths, perhaps more than a minute, with immediate neighbors. But it was still sort of abstract.

The last place, where I now live, is only a 3-story building with a single unit on each floor. I know all my neighbors’ names, occupations, hobbies, kids names, favorite restaurants, what time they usually head to work and return—I’ve made lengthy and meaningful conversation with all of them. If I run into one of them in the hallway, I’ll make a real effort to have a real conversation, and not just a “hi-bye”.

All that to say, I think niceness occurs in pockets. You start with the intimacy of two people having a private conversation, where I think niceness has the greatest chance of being found. Then scale that up to a group of friends, a team, a family, a small apartment building, a yoga class, your university. Niceness is present in all these places but diminishes with size. You’re more likely to say hi! to a passing person in a quiet suburb than in a crowded street in the middle of Chicago.

And if a tight-knit community is the best place to find niceness, then Twitter is neither tightly knit nor a community. It’s instead one of the largest, most crowded cities you’ll ever find yourself in.

I think the lasting solution to “how can we make the internet a nicer place” is to simply find intimate pockets that you can be a part of—the online equivalent of a 3-story building, or warm yoga class. But when you enter a mega metropolis like Twitter, with hundreds of millions of people, it sort of just becomes a matter of statistics, probability, and the strange (and ultimately shocking) distribution of human behavior.

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