Friday, July 18, 2008

A Milestone Has Been Reached.

I got my first really great hate comment this week.

I wrote a blog post for DISCOVER about this kid in Australia who was diagnosed with "Climate Change Disorder" -- he thought he couldn't drink any water because we'd run out and humanity would be destroyed. I wasn't totally convinced it wasn't a hoax, and what really made me want to write about the story was that pundits picked up the easy "Al Gore is making people crazy" angle to say that global warming is all empty hype: If you're scoring their logic at home, that's [one funny anecdote=years of research being meaningless]. Frequent rhetorical trick.

Anyway, I made the post, pointing out that while this boy was probably troubled, that doesn't invalidate the world's concern over global warming. Pretty straightforward, really. It's here. Then scroll down to the rambling comment. It's immaculate, and has very little to do with the actual post, other than one sentence in which I say global warming is real and dangerous.


I bring this while thing up because I thought of it after I was briefly accosted while walking over the Brooklyn Bridge tonight. The central pathway runs above the cars; half the wooded walk is for pedestrians, half is for cyclists. I walked over to the east side to look toward Midtown, and unwittingly walked across the bike lane. A man made a turn around me and then yelled the obligatory "you gotta watch where you're going, buddy."

Let's get a few things straight: I'm not Ralphie from A Christmas Story, and I'm not your buddy. But I was not angry with this man. He's a New Yorker, so I excuse him the knee-jerk reaction to say something. It's like honking. The world around you is unfit, so you must register your disappointment, and what's more, be an asshole to drive home the correction. "You gotta watch were you're going, buddy." All right. Now I know.

When I starting pondering his urge to correct the world at large, I started to think about something that's been on my mind lately -- web hooliganism, and how easy it if for otherwise small people to beat their chests and play bully online. There are all the usual reasons, of course: the anonymity, the lack of face-to-face contact that would normally throw social mores in the way of our aggression, the relative ease of writing something down compared to actually saying it and getting it past that conditioned lump in your throat.

What occurred to me was this: New Yorkers are New Yorkers all the time, but the rest of the country is becoming New Yorkers online -- free from the shackles of propriety, people can no longer withstand the urge to correct the world around to some imagined one best way. And when somebody else can't resist the urge to correct them to their correct way, the personal attacks come.

My hating commenter might be the kind of person who's aggressively correcting in all phases of life, online and not. Or perhaps he's a very nice man in reality, and only online does he troll posts however tangentially related to global warming, looking to correct the world to his point--that climate models haven't been totally accurate, so global warming is a hoax.

I don't know.

The creators of Donnie Darko were wrong, by the way. "Brooklyn Bridge" is a much better phrase than "Cellar Door." Same "UM-pa-DUM" rhythm, more visually appealing. And don't get me started on alliteration.


Elissa said...

I know this makes me a bad person.
My favorite part is that he starts out with, "Here's the facts."

Michelle S said...

Hey there. Found your blog via Tom Levenson's--I'm an MIT SciWrite grad.

I do think "web hooliganism," as you so eloquently put it, is due in part to the anonymity the web affords. To be quite honest, it's the main reason I'm more of a print gal than a web person when I write, even though I'm constantly accused of being a Luddite. The best example I can give you is the collection of rabble posting daily on (I currently inhabit the City of Brotherly Bitching). Honestly, can post an article about anything--about new line painting being done on the parkway, or something equally inane--and some uninformed idiot will feel the need to post a comment full of presumably made-up facts and incorrect statements, with at least two or three insults thrown in. It's just sickening. As a writer, I often feel the need to correct such inaccuracies, but I've learned to restrain myself in order to prevent the inevitable rise in my own blood pressure.

As you point out, maybe these folks are ordinary, decent people when they're not sitting in front of a computer. I rather hope so, since I live in the same city as so many of them. But that doesn't say much for us as a society, does it? As soon as we can hide behind a web moniker, we go on the attack and show our own stupidity. I can't say my hope for the future is bright.

A.G. said...

Hi Michelle. Thanks for coming. Always nice to meet a fellow alum.

I know what you mean, it's depressing. Everyone praises the Web for opening up democratic freedom, yet so much of what you see isn't ideas being tossed around, it's people getting bitter, defensive or insulting in defense of what they already believe. I guess that's probably the way it's always been, the technology is just better now.

We've had a few bouts of this at DISCOVER this summer -- first, one of our bloggers posted something linking the tomato salmonella scare to global warming, and Drudge likes to link to articles blaming things on global warming so that his drones can visit the site and bombard it with insulting comments. We got more than 350. Later, my boss's post about Disney banning its employees from bringing handguns to work, despite the DC court ruling, brought the gun nuts to our site.

I try to keep myself optimistic by thinking that this part of the problem can't be blamed on the Web -- this is just tribalism, no matter what the medium. If anything, it's symptomatic of the incompleteness of the Web revolution -- people are still following leaders instead of using the freedom of new media to put out their own thoughts. That may be human nature and will never change, but at least it's not the Web's fault. Or, at least that's what I'm telling myself.