Monday, September 25, 2006

Web Wackiness

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how much time I waste on the web and how that impacts my writing output. It’s made me realize that the web serves as a sort of adult video game, where you can spend hours putzing around on it and not accomplish a single quantifiable thing. But kids playing video games inadvertently develop their motor-reflex skills? Well, something tells me if that kid was an actual sniper wandering around a warehouse shooting everyone in sight, that might be a different story. Ditto, writing a lot of stuff on the web isn’t quite the same thing as structuring an actual story, or even a coherent point of view.

In particular, internet message boards present a real diversion from actually getting anything done. I’ve been on a few, dropped off nearly all of them, and the one I remain on, related to the music industry, I hardly post at all because I’ve let most of my connections to that industry slide (which isn’t a bad thing), on top of which, folks on that board are notoriously infantile and snotty. Which is what you would expect from the music industry. I’m finding it more enjoyable just to read these things for pertinent information, contribute briefly when I can, and stand back when people start getting strange with each other, which is a large part of the attraction for a lot of folks. In these politically-charged times. In which the country is split in half. (Sidenote: the country is not split in half. The assholes in our country are split in half, and they like fighting with each other, particularly on the internet.)

I was recently on a board associated with my neighborhood in Queens, but realized in a hurry that there was a strange, unspoken Lord of the Flies type hierarchy in place there, complete with a deeply misguided morality. One apparently unpopular member with these folks was openly ridiculed in a thread created explicitly for his humiliation. (I'd been on this board about two months -- I saw the guy post numerous times, and didn't see him post anything horrible.) A few people piled on (as expected), a few like me called bullshit, then most people bent over backwards to coddle the guy who started the thread – who normally seemed like a pretty sane guy on the board – because one of their own had been called into question (and he responded like a fucking child).

The guy apologized to the board, but not the person he intended to humiliate – it was a “joke,” which was supposed to alleviate any qualms anyone had. Right. All I could think was this was a dime-store version of Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" -- a spoiled rich kid beating a murder rap because his victim was a social outcast. I wanted no part of that shit, even if it was only minor public humiliation as opposed to murder. A lot of people showed their true colors on that issue, and I don't want them in my life (because I'd forcibly remove them, sooner or later, for being so casually amoral).

What anyone who’s spent any time on an internet message board immediately sensed was a ton of private messages among the inner circle, rallying troops in this time of crisis. Maybe that weekend, a gathering of bored and lonely thirtysomethings at a backyard beer bash, commiserating with their “us against the world” attitude … with a bunch of, when you get down to it, people who were total strangers months or weeks ago, but have suddenly become brothers in arms on some internet message board. I know how that scenario plays out. A lot of people suss out that they’re not part of the inner circle, they fade out of the mix, that core group of true believers stops growing, and sooner or later, they start lighting each other up in private the way they do some undesirable entity on the board. It all ends up with hurt feelings, betrayals and cliques worse than anything you’d find in a junior high school.

It’s all about loneliness. In Queens right now, you have neighborhoods being newly populated by white folks with college educations, entering environments that run from indifferent to hostile (most likely over issues of gentrification … although Queens natives will gladly treat you like an asshole for no good reason), and they want to band together in some sense. Which makes perfect sense to me. A lot of people I’ve been seeing on the streets lately in my neighborhood, fuck’s sake, if I was criminal-minded, I’d be taking them off, because they’re so obviously green and out of place in a working-class neighborhood (which is rapidly changing).

So I can easily grasp how these new people would want to come together with like-minded individuals. I just can’t wrap my mind around how these little fifedoms come into being and flourish. You talk to any of these people individually, and they’re shocked and amazed that you see this happening, and frankly insulted that you’d think they’d be part of something that insidious. But they don’t realize it’s just a healthy dose of human nature, and no great crime, but a little one all of us commit on occasion. And, of course, none of them will admit that they know at least a few of the people in their group are certifiable. It’s the internet: the perfect hideout for maniacs and misfits. You can’t put any group together on it and not turn up a few garden-variety sociopaths, and plenty of other people who have the charisma of body odor.

What was funny to me about that whole scenario, while I was inadvertently defending a person I didn’t know (it was more the principle of someone being singled out, followed by a pile on and a noticeable lack of shame), was that 10 years ago, about the age I suspect most of that inner circle are now, I was famous for ripping people on another internet message board, in ways that would make anything these rank pussies came up with seem downright quaint. At that time, I think I was fairly unhappy, albeit making the most money I ever would in my adult life. But it was at a job where I was getting put through the paces daily, and just not seeing any sort of future in the place, save more money and the same strenuous work load. I escaped by turning into this scandalous internet villain, infamous for brawling with any and everyone who wanted. Granted, the folks I brawled with were nutty and obtuse, but I was pretty good at it. I eventually quit the place a few times, but still read the board for its information.

(For the record, I spent most of the time being a fairly docile, albeit highly-entertaining and well-informed member of the board. People tend to remember the flare-outs much more vividly, whereas I remember everything. Do I regret brawling with people? Sure, it was stupid and nasty -- indicative of the unhappy place I was in at that time of my life. But more than anything, I regret wasting that much time on meaningless issues, with people just as or far more fucked up than I was. I'd say I'm happier these days simply because I'm older an wiser, more attentive to passing time, and not willing to waste it in that sort of manner. I'll still waste tons of time, but not by messing with people, that's for sure. You put loved ones in the ground, time becomes a real issue in how you go on living. Boredom and loneliness are not valid options. One of my golden rules of New York life has always been “avoid meaningless confrontation” – damn near every confrontation on the internet is meaningless.)

Along with the fighting, most boards start repeating themselves fairly regularly and quickly. Threads and ideas that rolled around last year will pop up again this year, and next year, and the following year, and the same people will respond to them as if they are fresh and new. If someone notices and takes umbrage, it will be duly noted, and people will still go on responding positively to the thread. Is this insanity? Not really. We do it with each other in terms of personal conversations – often times to create small myths, or simply because some things bear repeating and taking comfort in. That’s one thing I notice about myself as I get older. I have the same conversations with people I’ve known for years, many times over. And when I’m having these conversations, I’m well aware we’ve had these conversations many times before. Live long enough and you accept this, as opposed to flagellating yourself for going through the motions.

People on these boards carry on about creating community, but for the life of me, I see no community there. I see a bunch of lonely (and/or unsatisfied) people, floating in their personal space, connected by this very thin thread, the main requirement of which is to spend time alone in front of a computer. When people do get together, good and bad things happen. Hell, sometimes people even fall in love – it’s not all bad. But for the most part, the usual things happen when you gather people who have very little in common (beyond whatever the board is about), living different lifestyles, often pretty set in their ways, and it doesn’t take long before people realize, “Man, I really don’t like that guy!” Or guys. Or girls. Or girls and guys. Or every fucking person in sight. And their dogs. Then people split apart, which is good, as they learn to take away relationships and things that will last, as opposed to forcing some canned sense of community. It's not a failure of humanity -- it's reality.

We all reach a point in our lives where we close ranks. Slowly lose the acquaintances. Start counting the real friends on two hands or less. If we have kids, we focus on them. Focus on work. And I think at first, that’s a fairly lonely feeling, as opposed to the tribe mentality we’re imbued with in high school, and often foster throughout our 20s. Before wedding bells (and other such shit) start breaking up that old gang of ours. People go their own ways. And that’s just the way of the world.

With internet message boards, a lot of us hope to stave off that sense of isolation, or hopefully create another avenue to a new group of friends. But it never fully happens – you’ll pull a few friends from these things, but most people will pass you by. And I’d say that’s ultimately a good thing. I’m a lot better off doing what I’m doing now than trying to deal with people who may be totally nuts or part of some half-assed cabal, but, more than anything, are probably lonely as hell and looking to create some sparks in their lives. Can't fault them for that, and don't feel any need to be their flint.

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