Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Getting on My High Horse: The Wasteland of Internet Conversation

Perhaps this one has been a long time coming. If you were to track my internet usage history, this blog post might be the inevitable conclusion, like the obvious resolution of a story arc that spanned several seasons of a show. By the time you reach the final stages of the character’s journey, you know what comes next. It doesn’t mean you can’t and don’t enjoy it, just that you called the shot like Babe Ruth in the World Series. I mean, everyone knew Neo was going to die in the third Matrix, right?

In Middle School I was a huge Star Trek fan. Mostly I watched Deep Space, a show I transitioned into from a sustained interest in The Next Generation. Unlike TNG, the rick darkness of DS9’s pilot captivated me. There weren’t long scenes wasted on the bridge or in the ready room. The episodes all connected and flowed together into a larger narrative. Like Doctor Julian Bashir said, it was the frontier, both in the sense that the space station was on the edge of Federation’s territory and of Star Trek and television storytelling. I watched every episode, read the novels based on the series, bought the action figures, and carried around the Star Trek Encyclopedia. DS9 was perhaps my first great passion.

Around the same time DS9 premiered another three letter acronym was making itself known across the United States—AOL. America Online asserted itself as one of the leading internet service providers during the internet boom of the 90s. Its popularity was in part due to it being more than an ISP. It was also a community of messaged boards and chat rooms. In fact, before you could access the internet you first had to make a conscious decision to ignore and circumvent that community. Here I was introduced to talking to people I don’t know about a mutual interest through cyberspace.

Before my parents brought AOL into our home, my Dad had it on his computer at his office. During one of my visits there, probably on summer break, he showed me the Star Trek club (basically just a rudimentary message board that you could only access with an AOL screen name). He told me that lots of people from lots of places with lots of different jobs talked about the show there rather than with the people they knew didn’t like it. Obviously I’m paraphrasing to an extreme amount. I’m sure my Dad’s actual words didn’t lack sympathy and understanding. Regardless, there I sat at the gateway to the digital abyss.

When we did finally get an AOL account for the entire family a couple of years later, I already knew what my screen name would be (Odvok, a combination of the names of two of my favorite Star Trek characters Odo and Tuvok). I spent hours reading the Star Trek message boards, perusing other users’ profiles, and tweaking my own profile. It wasn’t long before I was hanging out in chat rooms, both about Star Trek and not. Eventually my main hang out was “NEW Young Adult.” AOL called it that as a rebrand from teen. Strangely they never removed the new from the name. It wasn’t the last “new” hangout I found on the web.

Over the years that spanned then and now, I bounced around chat rooms, message boards, Facebook groups, and blog/site comment sections. Each time I found myself going down the rabbit hole not to wonderland, but a wasteland. Like the real world I was perhaps escaping, I always found myself on the outside of a social schema with rules and roles that were beyond my understanding. Perhaps what perplexed me the most was the ferocity with which users asserted themselves. No matter the application, program, or URL, one constant remained—anonymity bred consent.

The more users operated in the shadows (going to great lengths to hide their true selves, creating multiple usernames, complaining to moderators via private message, etc), the more the communication centered on their topics and opinions. To this type of person the internet isn’t a place to be whoever you want; it’s a place to be no one at all, an e-persona disconnected from their real life. Thus their anonymity becomes their #1 value and reality the enemy. The subject they’re supposedly there to discuss (be it Star Trek, philosophy, Survivor, or New England Patriots football) becomes secondary to the fact that “they can post whatever they want.”

It’s important that I tread carefully here. I don’t want to come off spurned, as if I’m complaining because I’ve never been recognized and my self-esteem is impugned.  The internet generally isn’t the place to go for some psychological visibility. Rather what I feel is a deep disappointment and frustration. While I subscribe to the Penn Jillette theory that throughout history the world keeps getting better and people keeps saying it’s getting worse, I can’t help but think we could do it better. We have the greatest communication tool in the history of humanity at our fingertips and we use it to feel important instead of exchanging ideas.

Let me put it another way. Every Sunday I go to a local Boston bar to watch Patriots games (because I don’t have cable and like the pro-Patriots atmosphere). As I sit there and watch, I do three things. The first is monitoring the progress of my fantasy football teams. The second is reading my Twitter feed and the ESPNBoston blog for breaking news and analysis. The third is avoiding as much conversation at the bar as possible. There’s only so much Brady-blaming and Belichick-bashing I can take when the team is losing. The team goes down a couple of scores in the first quarter and suddenly everyone knows more than a head coach with 3 Super Bowl rings and 5 Super Bowl appearances. Fine, alright, get angry, show emotion, vent. I can understand that. But it goes to another level when you actually start to put forward arguments as to why you know more than the professionals you’re watching. It’s why I ignore—and sometimes see if there’s better conversation elsewhere.

The most bothersome thing about the comments on the ESPNBoston blog during games is not that they’re as negative as the ones I hear in the bar, it’s that they’re worse. If the bar patrons say the game is over, the blog commenters say the season is over. If the bar patrons say Brady is having a bad game, the blog commenters say his career is over. Hell, I think if the bar patrons said the world was in danger, the blog commenters would say the universe was ending. Yes, the conversation on the internet (which can involve anyone from anywhere in the world) is worse than the conversation in a local bar (even if it is in a major city). And this isn’t just a manifestation of Bostonian culture. Football is just an example. Pick a topic and think about what the worst conversation you could have about it is. Something worse is being said about it on the internet. Want to discuss your favorite show with other fans? According to them it’s the worst show ever and will never be as good as it was. Want to discuss a major court case with people who are watching as closely as you are? You don’t know what you’re talking about because you don’t have the proper perspective and education to understand how it’s the end of society.

(Note: A friend of mine struggled over the online responses to the recent season of Mad Men. As commenters said the show had become stale and repetitive and the main character completely unlikeable, she asked me to catch up so we could discuss it. When I finally watched I found that these commenters had missed he proverbial forest for the trees. Most notably, episode three featured a brilliant parallel (and obvious) narrative that none of them even mentioned. Sometimes I wonder if these people are so negative because they’re so smart and clever that they don’t bother with the trivialities I do. Nothing can ever satisfy them because they’re so evolved. Then I remember that they seem to hate everything they spend their time on.)

That’s why I’m tired, disappointed, and frustrated. Recently I tweeted, “I am never more wrong about things than when I post in an internet comment thread. Instantly I'm told how I'm dumb, delusional, and a liar.” I can even hear the responses to this post as I write it. “Hypocrite much? Ur being just as negative sayin the internet isnt bein used right.” Um, missing the point much? (Which, by the way, is what I almost always want to say people who respond to me so harshly. They claim to recount my argument, but never do.) I’m not telling anyone how to use the internet, I’m asking why we use it as we do and expressing how it makes me feel—sullen and sunken.

On July 2nd announced that their comment sections would be switching to Facebook comments from their current proprietary and barely moderated system with an extremely low barrier for registration. As you would expect, the current system breeds immense amounts of trolling and off topic discussions. It has always amazed me how a post about a rookie linebacker’s skill set and personality is responded to with 100s of comments dedicated to an international soccer match, if New Girl is better than Friends, or what people did over the weekend. The Facebook system promises high quality moderation and transparency on the part of the user. It’s a seemingly obvious victory for high quality, on topic conversation. The responses to the change from the current users gave me perhaps the last bit of information I needed to abandon the medium. was dead, they stated. The only people who would comment from now on would be “pink hats” ( All of the humor and intelligence would disappear. They would make fake Facebook profiles to continue posting or move to another site that let them have anonymity. They came to the site for the culture and camaraderie. Very few of them mentioned the actual content that provided.  (The ESPNBoston blog features some of the most intelligent and straight forward reporting I’ve seen on any topic.) Mind you, this wasn’t just a few users. I was the only person saying how the change was a good thing (to which I was told, among other things, to stop being pretentious and get off my high horse). I write the following with full seriousness, the level of hysteria at their anonymity being threatened scared me.

I don’t know what it says about me, our culture, or the internet that I’m unable to comprehend why people would want to spend their days with only small bits of their true selves squeaking out from behind the screens with which they obscure themselves. I’m transfixed by Catfish the TV Series even though it’s highly edited and formulaic. Each situation is a new twist on the same theme—someone has such disdain for him or herself that he has to hide behind technology to interact with other people who s/he harms as a result of that interaction. I’m enthralled at how shortsighted it is.

We’re living in the most prosperous time in human history. Despite whatever problems the world and you may have (and believe me, we all have our stuff to work through), you have access to cutting edge technology and quality food, shelter, and clothing. What is so bad about your life that you need to use all of those advantages to escape it on a daily basis and drag others down with you? Most importantly, is that really what you want your life to be? Is this really how we want it to be?

It’s not what I want. That’s why I wrote this blog post. It’s why I write this blog. Every day I go to bed with the hope that tomorrow will be just a little bit different, just a little bit better. For a long time I’ve thought the conversation enabled by the internet was part of that process of improvement. Now I’m afraid the potential wonderland will never be more than a wasteland.

And I’m not so sure if there’s a way back up the rabbit hole.