I was eighteen turning nineteen in my second year at university, stuck between trying to distance myself from the person I had been in high school and utterly failing to connect with the person I wanted to be in my head. I had managed to isolate myself almost completely.
Then I discovered Usenet newsgroups, a place where who I had been no longer mattered. I could go in with a blank slate and stake my claim on the back of something I knew I was good at: writing. At the same time I made an almost immediate connection to the mythology of the Internet, and a deep interest in discovering how the hell it all worked under the hood. If you want to know how I went from being a disinterested law student to being the architect for a social software platform, there's your catalyst.
By chance I found a corner of Usenet to call home, a place of inconsequential arguments about shit that didn’t matter. It was technically a “flame” newsgroup, so these arguments got pretty heated and personal, but because it was about shit that didn’t matter, it didn’t… well… matter very much. A bunch of us bonded over our ability to throw the choicest insults, then fragmented over petty squabbles, then re-formed into two semi-connected groups, then got bored and moved on with our lives.
At some point during all this, I got into an argument with a complete stranger about some shit that didn’t matter. I wrote a scathing tear-down of their personality, their motives, their utter worthlessness as a human being, ending in a flat statement that the only worthwhile thing they could do with their life was to end it.
I showed this post to an online friend of mine, a fellow flame-war veteran, expecting her to be impressed by how completely I had defeated this particular foe. Her response was cold. “You don’t fucking say that to someone. Not even as a joke.”
At some point, my Usenet crowd made a second home on IRC, because real-time messaging was a little more convenient for casual chat than essays that, thanks to the fundamental uncertainty of Usenet, may or may not ever be seen by anyone else.
Somewhere else on the same IRC network there was a channel of people who had never been on Usenet, but by dint of the same Shit That Didn’t Matter, were our natural enemies. We took to casually raiding them when we were bored, dive-bombing the channel to have pointless arguments, or just trying out flood scripts or scripted ANSI bombs that hadn’t been effective weapons for years. For some reason I couldn’t fathom they would always un-ban us after a few hours.
Because I was in Australia, there were long hours in the day where nobody from my entirely American Usenet circle was online. Not knowing anyone else on the network I took to hanging out in the channel I had previously been raiding. I got to know some of the night-owl regulars there. Eventually I dropped the pretense we were enemies.
A year later when I backpacked across the USA for my 21st birthday, five of them bought me dinner, let me sleep on their couches, or both.
A little less than a year ago, I was cleaning up an unused corner of my Internet existence, and found a link to a comment I had left years before on someone’s blog. The topic was men and women. I had absolutely no memory of writing the comment, but my name was above it and my standard throwaway password was on the account that posted it.
And it was bullshit. A whole bunch of biotruth-y, evo-psych nonsense that I must have believed at the time. The blog's author quite rightly eviscerated me for my intrusion into her online space with such a load of rubbish, but I had never revisited the site after leaving my reply. I had just walked away and forgotten I had been there.
I spent the next hour writing an email to the author apologising for my comments, and thanking her because it was people like her, writing the sorts of things she was writing online that had turned the Charles-of-a-few-years-ago who wrote that crap into the Charles of today who understood how much crap it was.
A few months ago, a colleague of mine caused a stir online saying something he should have known better than to say. What happened is a matter of public record, but I’m not going to go over the details here because that part is not my story.
What is my story is that after a frantic day of diving head-first into internal discussions of what we did wrong and what we could do to make it better, I had the sudden realisation that two of the more popular posts on this blog, posts that got me many a hearty back-slap at the time, were written to the same conceit that had got my colleague in trouble, yet with an execution ten times as bad.
Those posts no longer appear on my blog.
I don’t believe that the problem with the Internet is anonymity, and that “people are just going to be like that”.
At no point in these stories did I identify as, or want to be an asshole, or be sexist, or be ignorant. We are always growing and learning, and along the way people came along who filled in gaps in my understanding, showed me what I needed to do to better fit into the shoes of who I wanted to be.
I think the problem with the Internet is that the feedback mechanism that would normally guide wanting-to-be-good but misguided people back to the mean has been broken, often by naive nerds with good intentions. Simultaneously, those people who could provide that feedback have been conditioned not to interfere.
Free speech is a good thing, so we create unsafe spaces where groups get to reinforce each others prejudices unchecked, and silencing abusers is censorship. Where arguing with racists is “mess[ing] with the normal function of the site” but being those racists isn't.
Anonymity is a good thing, so we create unsafe spaces where the maintainers wash their hands of responsibility for safeguarding against the real-world dangers that can emerge from it.
And in every case we lean back on the excuse that the Internet is just like that, and it’s just too hard to stop so why even bother trying (except when it threatens to cause the site to be shut down, at which point it mysteriously becomes enforceable).
It would be one thing if such places were well known as the arse-end of the Internet and admitting you were associated with one in polite company was the same as admitting you were a member of a White Power group. Instead, the rest of the world tacitly excuses these sites, partly because the principles (unmoderated speech, anonymous speech) are so easy to defend in isolation from their consequences, but mostly because they also produce most of our funny cat pictures.