2006: The Year the Internet Went Dystopian
The first time anyone trashed me online was in 2006, a few months after a pop culture conference in which I gave a talk on the then-popular TV series Battlestar Galactica. Apparently one of the people in the audience that day was upset by some of the things I said in my lecture and the Q&A afterwards, but rather than ask a question of her own or challenge me in the room, she waited until months afterwards to insult me in an online discussion forum, among other things, calling me an ass. She did so by hiding behind an anonymous avatar while calling me out by name. I was not amused.
I found the post during a vanity search and promptly replied to it. I called her a coward and I challenged her to show up to the same conference the next year and call me an ass to my face. I never saw or heard from this person again, not because I was so menacing and scary, but because we both lost interest in the fight.
That same year, Twitter was founded, and suddenly, anonymous avatar X from the pop culture conference had an entirely new field to play in, the internet’s premier “microblogging” site. Twitter allowed you to exchange your rhetorical flintlock for an AR-15. No more slumming on message boards and typing away in chat rooms. You now had a platform that supercharged your animus, snark, pettiness, righteous indignation, and sense of grievance. And you could do it right alongside celebrities and journalists and even a president of the United States.
Yes, 2006 was the year I lost my innocence on the internet, but no single troll or doxer is to blame. Something shifted that year in the sprawling digital hyperspace we had created. It collided with the biosphere and melded with it somehow. The thoughts and feelings and social interactions that had once lived on the plain of human existence that had evolved over millennia were thrust into a new dimension. This collision of instinctual meat brain and algorithmic hyper-reality was bound to yield catastrophe, and it has.
Humans have proven themselves excellent adapters to harsh, unpleasant situations. We can live practically anywhere, and we are apparently equipped to endure lifetimes of trauma and abuse, soldiering on from one generation to the next. Like millions of other humans, I have basically adapted to the internet‘s shittyness, long ago losing any utopian aspirations for it. Now, I simply grind and work and occasionally amuse myself in this new dystopia, expecting nothing like enlightenment or progress from it. But because the internet is constantly shifting and changing, it is difficult to for me to maintain a sense of history about it. Was it always this sketchy and fraught with irritating, unpleasant, and dangerous things? Did I feel differently about it in the early 2000s? In the 1990s? For some reason, my mind fogs over when I try to answer these questions for myself.
Recalling my previous relationship with the internet is not easy, but there is value in trying to do so. Now, whenever I witness some terrible interaction online, I force my mind back to that conference. It is, for me, a bellwether event in my personal relationship to the the internet. There we were, all fans of a popular sci fi series packed into a small conference room with not enough chairs. There I was, standing at the podium, speaking and answering questions. There she was in the back of the room, stewing and feeling aggrieved by my comments. In the pre-internet world, there would have been two choices for her. She could sit and stew and say nothing, or she could raise her hand and share her objections. But the internet opened up space for a third option: go online after the conference ends and anonymously trash talk the speaker.
This new space for transforming our underground feelings into unimpressive but emotionally satisfying discourse is what has turned the internet into a dystopia. This space—we’ll call it a cave—is where the trolls live. This is where your cousin’s wife is hiding when she calls you a libtard on Facebook or where your colleague is preparing to fire off a long, rambling screed about how all anti-vaxxers should be boiled alive. This is where angry mobs of strangers gather to sharpen their rhetorical knives and pounce on the guy who clicks “like” on a racist joke or where Karens flee to wring their hands over the latest moral panic. This is the dark place where people used to go in their own minds to perform their rage and self-loathing, like Travis Bickle‘s interior monologue in Taxi Driver. Now Travis can seek out a like-minded community of civilization-hating troglodytes if he wishes, his people. #trashwasher #youtalkintome. And if you don't like it, he and his people will unleash a #realrain on you.
When I first logged on to Twitter, the flood of tweets instantly reminded me of the experience of reading the “comments“ section at the end of online articles in the 1990s. The comments section was where people would let it all hang out. Some of it was smart, insightful, and on point, but most of it was crude, hastily dashed-off digital ephemera, as forgettable as it was ungrammatical. People talked past each other in these exchanges, misreading and misinterpreting, failing at humor and failing to correctly read the humor in others. Lots of insults and put downs and tut-tutting and finger wagging were on display. Some of it was clever. Some of it was just awful—racist, sexist, homophobic and mean for the sake of being mean. The worst offenders were essentially like infants smearing their own feces on the wall.
The evil genius of Twitter is that it tapped this dark energy, enabling its members to fire off uniformly-sized nuggets of it into a vast network of interconnected users. Because it was slick and new and sexy, Twitter legitimized most of the behaviors evidenced in those comments sections, good and bad, but with a new twist: now you could find an audience who affirmed them. On Twitter, you can be a snarky shitheel with an audience of other snarky shitheels who will “like” and “retweet” your snark, hoping of course that you will do the same for them.
The cave isn’t new. It has always been with us in one form or another. This is why humans developed a vast catalog of social conventions, etiquette, and manners—to keep a lid on it, to prevent it from destroying the social fabric. When my grandmother would say "you should never discuss politics or religion in polite company," she was sharing wisdom about what not to say for the sake of preserving the social equilibrium in certain situations—Thanksgiving dinner, for example. Learning the things not to say out loud, the art of circumspection, was once a skill associated with being a sophisticated communicator. But in the age of living out loud and living online, every thought, however mundane or toxic, is fair game for the internet's vast field of free-range self expression.
The internet is new, and there is still hope that a sensible ethos will evolve with it. Some online communities have tried to foster etiquette on the conversations they facilitate, but on the big, corporate-run social media platforms, cave dwellers still roam freely, slinging big rocks around and wrecking the place. Most of us simply grin and bear it. There is nowhere else to go.
In a memorable scene from Battlestar Galactica, Captain Adama reflects on the Cylons, those sentient cybornetic life forms who revolted against their masters and then nearly destroyed human civilization: ”You cannot play God then wash your hands of the things that you've created,” he says. “Sooner or later, the day comes when you can't hide from the things that you've done anymore." The internet is like this, launched into the world, as most new technology is, by people wearing blinders and singing hallelujahs. We’ll have to take responsibility for it someday, own up to what it is, but we’re not there yet.