By Gary Chapman
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A joke floating around the Internet:
Q: How many Internet contributors does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: What are you trying to say, you worthless, scumbag jerk?
Computer networks are increasingly hyped as a new medium of virtuous democratic and social discourse, the cyber-version of the Acropolis. A Time magazine reviewer recently called the Internet "the ultimate salon" of conversation, and The Utne Reader is promoting "electronic salons" to soothe the anomie and coarseness of contemporary life. Author Howard Rheingold has celebrated the "virtual community" as a source of solace and fraternity, and columnist David Broder has written paeans to the new spirit of civic participation allegedly found on computer networks.
Electronic conversations--if that's what they are to be called--on the Internet and various other computer networks such as America Online, Prodigy and CompuServe, are certainly a new and interesting feature of American social life and manners. The terabytes of gab on these systems, engaging millions of people, are perhaps the first display of the direct voice of the American people in an ongoing, semi-organized, public forum. People are talking about everything under the sun--politics, pet care, even deliberate gibberish. Consequently, politicians, pollsters, reporters, marketers and social analysts are keenly interested in what our fellow citizens are thinking and saying on-line. Electronic conversations, to our benefit, allow people to circumvent the managed public dialogue that politicians and P.R.-types try to shape to serve their own ends.
But the evidence of public virtue in cyberspace is so far more discouraging and alarming than noble and salutary. Electronic salons already contain broken furniture and have mud on their walls. The notorious phenomenon of "flaming"--issuing a nasty and often profane diatribe--is now a familiar sociological curiosity. UseNet news groups--open, topical conversations accessible over the Internet and other systems--have become vast libraries of pyrotechnic insults. Mark Dery, editor of a new book, Flame Wars, offers a few choice examples: "You syphilitic bovine harpy." "You heaving purulent mammoth." "You twitching gelatinous yolk of rancid smegma." You get the idea. Many retorts are merely terse, obscene snarls, but Internet users have also developed a competition in rococo, smart-alecky taunts, such as this one: "Your reply was most impressive. You seem to have the ability to respond to mail with either profanity, inanity or pointless threats of physical violence. Why don't you try those pills the doctor gave you, and take a nice long rest. It may do you no good, but I am sure the remainder of the viewers would be pleased by the absence of your moronic and asinine diatribes." It's hard to imagine such exchanges at a PTA meeting or a cocktail party. Electronic communication is providing a disturbing glimpse of what may be smoldering, heretofore unsaid, in the minds of many Americans.
More generally, electronic conversations appear to be prone to misinterpretation, sudden and rapidly escalating hostility between the participants, and a weird kind of implosion when the conversants express their anger with sulking silence. This may be because, unlike in face-to-face conversation, there are no visual cues, what linguist Peter Farb calls "paralanguage." It may also be because people who are completely removed from one another physically can assault each other verbally without fear of bodily harm, a suggestion that our evolutionary heritage is still at work in restraining our behavior in everyday encounters.
Electronic anonymity also encourages fantasy life, often tilting toward the dark side. Dedicated network denizens frequently inhabit alter egos attached to their computer names. Some computer users have identities in cyberspace that correspond to exotic names, such as Phreak or Acid, two well-known hacker monikers, rather than to their prosaically named real-world personae. While a middle-class, suburban white man may tend not to adopt a nom d'ordinateur, millions of electronic Walter Mittys nationwide do take on a more aggressive personality behind a computer and a modem--ferociously pouring out their otherwise sublimated middle-class angst.
A cyberspace alter ego often goes beyond a new name and a release of inhibition. Network users lie, sometimes spectacularly. Pavel Curtis, a Xerox researcher who runs a fascinating Multi-User Dimension (or MUD)--a kind of "virtual world" within the Internet with its own simulated geography, characters and interactions--reports that a significant portion of people logging into his system switch genders for the identities they assume. Most common are young men who portray themselves as women; indeed, it's become a rule of thumb that any sexually aggressive female on this MUD is really a man. Peter Lewis, The New York Times's cyberspace reporter, tells a story about a man who conducted a protracted and intimate electronic romance over the Internet with a pen pal, who said she was a 26-year-old graduate student. When he met her in person, he learned that she was in fact a 13-year-old girl.
As the French discovered in their national Minitel system, sex often dominates electronic encounters. The majority of messages on Minitel have been advertisements for sex or sex talk, and, national character notwithstanding, Americans are no slackers in this regard. Computer communication seems to bring out the id screaming for attention. In February, a University of Michigan student, Jake Baker, was arrested for posting to the university's computer network a graphic fantasy of the rape, torture and murder of a fellow student; though such stories are common on a few news groups, Baker actually named his victim, which police interpreted as a threat. A reporter for Computer Life magazine posed on the Internet as a 15-year-old cheerleader and got more than thirty e-mail messages of a sexual nature, including requests for her panties and her telephone number. Harassment of women is so common that women often pretend to be men to avoid sexually suggestive e-mail.
Bigotry and misogyny are prevalent as well. As Amy Harmon noted recently in The Los Angeles Times, bigots are showing up on computer networks with increasing frequency because they can't get a hearing anywhere else. Networks are a cheap means for white supremacists and neo-Nazis to get their hate messages to thousands of people at once. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has protested to Prodigy about frequent anti-Semitic rants on that system. Prodigy officials are caught, to their embarrassment, in a tug-of-war between freedom of speech and the basic civilities that many users expect.
Finally, the general quality of the rhetoric on the Internet is discouraging in itself. Even without all the cranks, poseurs, charlatans, fetishists, single-issue monomaniacs, sex-starved lonely hearts, mischievous teenagers, sexists, racists and right-wing haranguers, many participants in unstructured Internet conversations have little of interest to say but a lot of room in which to say it. Goofy opinions and comical disregard for facts are rampant. Spelling is haphazard and even simple typos sometimes produce absurd flaming firefights. Nearly every reasonable discussion is sooner or later discovered by someone with a hobby horse or an abrasive personality or both, and there are few reliable ways to shunt such people elsewhere. It's pretty clear, too, that quite a few messages come from people who must be drunk; there are as yet no sobriety checkpoints on the "information superhighway." The new electronic Acropolis seems to foster rhetoric stylistically closer to Beavis and Butthead than to Pericles.
Fifteen years ago, the forerunner of the Internet, the Arpanet, was used almost exclusively by top computer scientists and other elite engineers and scientists, who tend to be a refined bunch, partial to classical music and good books. Many are now appalled by what networking has become. Some have dropped off the net altogether.
This suggests that the Internet may be on a path similar to that followed by television and other communications media: the introduction of the masses so alienates well-educated, cosmopolitan people that they abandon the medium or resort to a specialized class of cultural material that advertises its disdain for mass tastes. There are already signs that this is happening on the Internet: while veterans of the net have tended to narrow their presence to a select group of exclusive and low-profile mailing lists, more recent users are complaining loudly about the influx of hundreds of thousands of newcomers via America Online, "newbies" who are stumbling around the net asking greenhorn questions and committing faux pas of "netiquette." Many people with pressing schedules are starting to regard the cacophonous noise as a waste of time. Their exits raise the proportion of nuts, creeps and boors. Thus an inevitable backlash against the lofty hype surrounding the Internet is building, such as in Cliff Stoll's new book, Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Superhighway.
This all sounds like an anti-democratic trend, in contrast to the democratization that computer networks are supposed to both exemplify and support. Is cyberspace already sorting itself into two camps, a jaded, invisible elite and a teeming mass of wrassling rubes? This image wouldn't be unusual in the history of American popular culture. It seems clear that cultural polarization and low behavior in cyberspace reflect trends in American society as a whole, but the peculiar features of computer communication are amplifying the decline of our national mores and manners, and, at the same time, giving us an unprecedented bird's-eye view of what we've become.
Of course, we can always hope that computer networks are undergoing a metamorphosis from childhood to adolescence these days, with an anticipated maturation into adulthood sometime in the future. We'll have to develop manners in cyberspace just as we have in our everyday, real-world encounters, and that could entail a long process of evolution and refinement. If we don't develop virtual manners, cyberspace will continue to resemble a mud wrestling event. But if we can treat each other with respect over e-mail, we may go a long way toward solving some of the basic dilemmas of democracy.
Gary Chapman, "Flamers" from The New Republic April 10, 1995. Reprinted by permission of THE NEW REPUBLIC © 1995, The New Republic, Inc.
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