Friday, February 24, 2006

The Raging Internet

How is it that relatively intelligent, well-educated, reasonably informed people can believe the sheerest of crap whenever they want?  I’m sure someday scientists will figure out how to harness that ability to create the virtual reality worlds that seem so much more appealing than our own.  Our latest example: WaPo’s David Ignatius, via Roger Ailes:

McLean argues that the Internet is a "rage enabler."
What's more, it provides an environment in which enraged people can gather at cause-centered Web sites and make themselves even angrier. The technology, McLean notes, "eliminates the opportunity for filtering or rage-dissipating communications to intrude." I think McLean is right. And you don't have to travel to Cairo to see how the Internet fuels rage and poisons reasoned debate. Just take a tour of the American blogosphere.

Rage??  Rage??  I guess I’m just hanging out at the wrong blogs, because I have yet to see anything that I’d define as “rage”.  Particularly not a rage that doesn’t dissipate.  And frankly, I don’t see the internet as being particularly conducive to actual rage.  Misunderstandings?  Yes.  Angry exchanges?  Yes.  Rage?  I don’t think so.  When I think of rage, I think of some dude shooting someone for taking their parking spot.  I think of a barfight.  I think of manslaughter.  I don’t think of someone typing a long message and hitting the send button.

Connecting the Separation

Even worse, his overall argument is crap too.  He’s trying to argue that the “connectedness” of the web makes people angrier.  But he’s got it completely backwards.  It’s the separation that fuels most internet fights.  Just like when you’re in a car.  People forget the rules of etiquette when they can’t put a face to the people they’re dealing with.  And they’ll say and do things that they’d never do in person.  I, for example, have given the “bird” to many a stranger while driving, some of who even deserved it; but have yet to do so in a more personal setting.

Many years ago, Mrs. Biobrain had a pleasant conversation with some guy at a park, and it wasn’t until he mentioned his name at the end of the conversation that she realized he was a notorious troll who everyone hated in our local Usenet group.  Over the internet, he was a complete jerk who nobody liked dealing with; but in person, he was pleasant and approachable.  Even now, just thinking about his name brings back bad memories; and that might be different, had I met him in person…though I might just have punched him in the face, so perhaps it’s best that I wasn’t there.

And frankly, I like it better that way.  I get pretty savage in an argument (rhetorically, not physically), and prefer the relative anonymity of the internet.  I like being able to confront people and call their arguments crap and to call them dipshits (only as a last resort, of course).  That’s my idea of a fun time.  And that just can’t be done in person.  Not only do you risk alienating people, but you might become a victim of actual rage.  

And to be honest, I think I come off much better over the internet than in person.  On the internet, my brashness and no-holds-barred style make me come off as a sort of a jerk; where as in real life, it’s total asshole, all the way.  Not that any of that is my fault, mind you.  It’s just that the jerkwaters that I keep having to deal with aren’t up to my level of conversation.  Needless to say, relatively anonymous hit-and-run commenting is much easier on my social life.

Anger as Method

Secondly, a big problem is that context is so difficult with the written word, and many humorous (and nonhumorous) jokes can be seen as angry tirades if the reader doesn’t have the right mindset.  Particularly if the writer makes liberal use of dirty words; which some faint-hearted people assume to indicate anger.  I think that’s one reason why the Post freaked out about the Howell thing.  People were rude, sure.  But much of that rudeness was obviously done in a humorous vein.  Insulting, sure; but not really angry.  But on their side, all they saw was equally angry responses fueled by angry bloggers who unleashed their rage-filled hordes.  Imagine Atrios as Genghis Khan.  Though I suspect that much of the Post’s over-reaction was to mask the guilt they felt at having been exposed for getting the story wrong.  Nothing hurts more than the truth; and like many guilty people, the Post wanted to rationalize their feelings of guilt by blaming the messenger.  Fairly ironic, really; coming from a newspaper.

And finally, some of that anger is justified.  Back in the day, we were stuck with the stories that the media establishment fed us.  Talk radio helped fix that for the wingnuts.  But it wasn’t until the internet that lefties finally developed an effective way of spreading the news.  And so now we have guys like Josh Marshall to do research that the regular media is too lazy or scared to cover.  And we’re hearing stories that might have slipped by, and can group together to keep the heat on.  And we can also use it to issue an organized response, which is far more effective than what we might do as individuals.

And a lot of this stuff is something we should be angry about.  I’m sure much of the media thinks that even the most egregious wrong-doings deserve a detached cynicism; and can even imagine the tut-tutting of editors everywhere as hot-headed liberals decried the routine imprisonment and hanging of random citizens.  In fact, one of the biggest problems with the media is that they generally don’t seem to give a shit.  They have this blasé, “we’ve seen it all” approach to everything; as if all of this is just some fictional story without any real importance to our lives.  As if liberal outrage is simply a game we play to help out our team; much the way that a sportsfan yells while watching football at the bar.  And the only thing they seem passionate about is protecting their own domain from the raging hordes who actually care about the news.

And as a technique, this anger can achieve good results.  I don’t recommend it in all cases, but if harnessed properly, it can be used to further your point. And you can bet your bottom dollar that Jim Brady and the rest of the WaPo crew are less likely to rely on lazy conventional wisdom to fill their newspaper; after the last shit-storm over Abramoff money.  They might bitch and moan about the attacks, but they won’t forget them.

But again, I really think Ignatius was going overboard with the “rage” thing.    His choice of that word wasn’t to reflect truth, or even to further his point.  It was to demonize; to insult.  I know of no bigname bloggers who express anger.  The usually passive Atrios seems to get most upset by his own readers who fail to appreciate that he has a life and doesn’t want to be deluged by useless emails.  And the most angry things I ever read are the late-night racist posts on the Yahoo messageboards.  But that’s just old fashioned bigotry and nothing internet-fed.  That’s not to say that there isn’t rage out there; just that I’m not seeing it.  But as with the Howell thing, I think that Ignatius is simply using the “rage” caricature in order to dismiss the newly voiced critics who continually taunt his cohorts.  Because again, that’s the only thing they actually seem to care about.

P.S. If anyone out there can point my way towards one of those Feed Your Rage “cause-centered websites” Ignatius speaks of, I’d be much appreciative.  My current batch of coffee just isn’t doing it for me this time and I could really use some non-dissipating rage to pick me up each morning.

1 comment:

Dan said...

I won't bother looking up the actual quote, but I'd sum the whole situation up by paraphrasing Truman: We're telling them the truth, and they think it's hell.

I agree, I read Kos, MyDD, Greenwald, Juan Cole and TPM and I never see any of the front pagers frothing in rage. They are generally able to eloquently express why a particular fact is enraging, but that's not the same thing.

But the best the right can do is to dismiss us as the "angry" left.