The Inner Mounting Flame
I first read John Seabrook’s account of life online when it first came out in paperback in 1998. I was still pretty new to the web myself back then and Seabrook acted as a travel guide to this weird, often wonderful world and more often perplexing world. His account was couched in a homely, non-nerdy style that avoided any lofty digressions that would lose me in an undergrowth of footnotes and technical details.
His cleverness was to be able to view the subject with the eyes of an innocent, bringing a disarming naivety to sometimes difficult and complex questions such as ethics and implications of the web for the off-line world.
The chapter that really caught my imagination first time around and continues to resonate is My First Flame. This is his description of his first time of being abused online.
“I knew something bad had just happened to me, and I was waiting to find out what it would feel like. I felt cold. People whose bodies have been badly burned begin to shiver, and the flame seemed to put a chill in the center of my chest which I could feel spreading slowly outward. My shoulders began to shake. I got up and walked quickly to the soda machines for no good reason, then hurried back to my desk. There was the flame on my screen, the sound of it not dying away; it was flaming me all over again in the subjective eternity that is time in the on-line world.”
I suppose it’s the relative anonymity and almost no “real” comeback that makes them feel like they can badmouth people in ways that would never occur to them when out in day world. Online they get throw their weight around, show how witty they are with cutting remarks, quips and quick putdowns.
They get to be a big guy, a wise guy; in fact, and this is perhaps the nub of it, they get to be one of the guys. And make no mistake – this is a macho thing we’re talking about. Online testosterone makes up for the paucity of it in their real-life interactions.
Were they to try acting this way in the pub or supermarket or in any other public place they’d get their block knocked off. Of course it would never come to that; in the real world they’d merely fumble their words, blush a lot and most likely not have the balls to say anything at all in the first place.
One recent example of truly clueless online knee-jerk mentality I witnessed was someone criticising an album that they hadn’t even heard. Far enough to say that they don’t like the artist in question but to slag it off and attribute speculative motivations that lay behind the making of an album without ever having heard a single solitary note seemed to be spectacularly dumb.
Why might a person say such things? For effect? For a laugh? To get some discussion on the board? Perhaps they might regard such activities as challenging the orthodoxy of group thinking; an irreverent iconoclastic bent on upsetting the applecart to make life a bit more interesting? Who knows.
On the question of anonymity Seabrook makes this observation.
“Crucial aspects of your identity--age, sex, race, education, all of which would be revealed involuntarily in a face-to-face meeting and in most telephone conversations-do not come through the computer unless you choose to reveal them. Many people use handles for themselves instead of their real names, and a lot of people develop personae that go along with those handles. (When they get tired of a particular persona, they invent a new handle and begin again.). . .On the net, people are judged primarily not by who they are but by what they write.” (my emphasis)