If you ask most people, they’ll say they are against bullying, but plenty of us who say that also engage in it. We don’t do it face to face, with people we know, but with strangers who have somehow caught the Internet’s attention and gone viral.

I’m not talking about people who are reviled for bigoted or cruel comments or behavior, although even in cases like this, I try to remember not to join in. Why? Because more than once, I’ve seen this exact thing happen:

  1. Someone on Tumblr or Facebook shares a screenshot of a person saying a horrible racist or cruel thing.
  2. The screenshot gets thousands of shares, and people begin to harass the individual directly, call her workplace to demand that she be fired, and so on.
  3. It turns out that the screenshot was Photoshopped or her account was hacked by a vengeful enemy or ex-boyfriend, and she never even said that. Her life has become a living hell, and her name is associated with some awful thing she never said in Google search history forever.

This is terrible to witness, and I never want to be a part of it.

Okay, but that’s not even what I’m talking about today. Often, the Internet takes notice of someone who isn’t even allegedly harming anybody at all.

It might be a woman wearing a tacky outfit to WalMart, or a girl wearing an ill-advised prom dress. It could be a guy at a ball game with his cap on backwards, shading his eyes with his hand. In the last couple of days, it was a grandmother who had the gall to say she looked younger than she looks.

Things like this go viral because many of us, although we say otherwise, are bullies at heart who want to entertain ourselves by picking on the person with a weakness. We try to outdo each other, coming up with the funniest mean comment or the meanest funny comment.

But hey, they asked for it, right?

What was that woman thinking, wearing that to WalMart?

(Maybe her mom is dying and she’s picking up a prescription for a med that doesn’t even seem to be helping, and that was the only thing she had clean because she’s worn out from her two crappy part-time jobs plus care taking, so she was just like, The hell with it. Or wait, maybe she’s mentally ill! Wouldn’t that be hilarious?)

What’s wrong with teenagers today, that they think slutty prom dresses are acceptable?

(Gosh, I don’t know! It’s almost as if they feel overwhelming pressure to be sexually desirable, even though they’re just kids!)

Haha, look at that idiot shading his eyes even though his cap is on backwards!

(The rest of us never do thoughtless or awkward things.)

Oh my God, this grandma said she looked like she was a sister of her daughter and granddaughter! No she doesn’t, she looks old.

(Okay, I’m out of sarcasm. I never have a big supply. How in the world is this hurting you or anyone else? How is this worthy of a national public shaming?)

Here’s the thing. All of those people are real, actual people. This seems like an obvious point, but I do think we forget.

I hope that they are not prone to depression, or that they are people who, unlike their bullies, are too busy living their lives to spend much time on the Internet. Because, honestly? If a person was already fragile, being mocked by thousands of strangers might push them over the edge.

Internet bullying like this doesn’t only hurt its many unfortunate random targets. It’s dispiriting to those who see it, feeding their insecurities and making them fear that maybe they, too, are deserving of scorn.

It’s not even good for the bullies. All of us say stupid things and do stupid things, and most of us wear unfortunate outfits on occasion. Making fun of someone else might make us feel momentarily smarter, but it’s not going to last. In the end, mocking people is going to make us more miserable. (And I won’t even get into karma, though I’m sure you’ve heard it’s a bitch. You heard right.)

I’m writing this post for myself as much as anyone else. On a bad day, I might be tempted to behave in a way that’s not at all consistent with my values. And I’ve done it in the past. I’ve said mean things about random people who weren’t hurting anyone. I just never want to do it again.

The Internet seems like it’s always been with us, but it’s only been a part of most people’s lives for the last twenty years or so. It’s possible that we’re all still figuring out the best way to use it and absorbing the fact that people on the Internet are, well, people.

Social media does give me a lot of power to impact other people’s lives. I can leave positive comments not only for friends, but also acquaintances, or even some stranger on Twitter. What would happen if, every day, I focused on using that power for good?