Ink Paper Words' Profile

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Pacific Northwest, United States
In elementary school, I desperately wanted my mother to order books for me from those flyers Scholastic hands out to kids. She refused, citing the "perfectly good library down the street." I exacted revenge by becoming a card-carrying ALA accredited reference librarian. Ha! Take that!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Of Internet Drama, Trolls and Hissy Fits (part 2)

I recall that some years ago there was much public lamenting about the ever decreasing lack of communication and that people didn't seem to be writing much anymore. It appears that the Internet has certainly changed all that. According to the most recent stats I could find an estimated daily average of 210 billion emails are sent every day. Now, even when taking into account that many of these are spam (some sources citing numbers as high as 30%), others are trivial work email (Reply to All is the bane of the workplace, LOL), that still amounts to a significant amount of communication. Factor in blogs, message boards, newsgroups, listservs, wikis, RSS feeds and social networking sites and it doesn't take a huge stretch of the imagination to see that if anything, communication is booming in these days in Internet ubiquity.

But while we are talking to each other more than ever – albeit virtually – what is happening with the quality of that communication? Certainly, the Internet provides a fabulous means of opportunity not only to keep in touch with family and friends, but to make connections with people across the globe who share one's interests. People who would recently never have had any reason to meet due to distance are now able to meet and form virtual, yet nonetheless real, relationships. I met my fiance via a dating site. Despite the fact that we only lived 30 miles apart, we would never have met had it not been for the web.

It is my belief that a sense of community among virtual groups is a vital, growing thing. And, just as people can form a community based on shared likes, community can just as easily be created between people who share a common dislike.

I am thinking of a particular “anti-fan” community and what has happened to it. Of course,no anti-fan community could exist without a given celebrity having a legion of fans and a lot of public exposure. In a strange way, I think the ubiquity of this particular celebrity has insured the existence of a community devoted to pointing out his/her foibles and lack of knowledge. One might think, perhaps rightly, that such a group inherently be somewhat volatile, but over the years that I've participated on the site, I was repeatedly struck by a sense of cohesion among its members and a level of caring about each other that seemed unusual. Perhaps the “anti-fan anti-fans” who bash these members have unknowingly created a defensive “circle the wagons” attitude among community members. The community had a policy against trolling which was frequently breached by people eager to insult and denigrate those of us who did not share their love. Usually these trolls were banned from the community with little fanfare.

It all seemed quite shocking then when the moderator allowed a troll to run rampant over the community. After a couple of months of this harassment the truth came out that this person was in fact an employee of the site subject, had apparently befriended the moderator who then allowed him to uncontrolled access. The resulting drama of name calling, accusations and the banning of people who had been members for years made the board a very unpleasant place to hang out. The sense of betrayal among members was very palpable and real.

I suppose it is natural that communities on the Internet, being a reflection of the humans who interact on them, will be born, grow and eventually die. In this case, however, the community did not die; it merely moved to a new piece of virtual real estate. Despite the best efforts of some (I suspect well-funded) to kill the community, it lives on – minus its creator.

Some years ago I began online dating, and was frequently asked how real a relationship could be when you had not only not met the other party but in fact lived thousands of miles away from them. After forming friendships with various people, I can affirm the sincerity of those attachments. At one point I knew I would have to break up with someone online. The sense of dread was no less than had it been a local. The fact that it happened via email may have lessened the difficulty of doing it, but not the knowledge that I was going to hurt someone. The relationship is real. The feelings that result from it are real.

Even so, I think it's important to remember that the air of anonymity behind the monitor does enable a less than accurate presentation of who a person is. This may seem that I am contradicting myself, but an element of caution is never a bad idea. It may be easier for someone to mask a true identity in web-based communication but that certainly isn't anything exclusive to the Internet. I had been married to my ex-husband for several years before I discovered some secrets that he had quite successfully hidden from me.

What defines community when frequently its members have never met? Clearly it is more than simply staking out one's virtual soap box and shouting out to anyone with a search engine. I've been a member of an email loop since 2000. Despite our varying professions, families and interests and other life conditions, we have shared triumphs and tragedies, loves and losses, heroes and heartaches. We may have come together because we shared a certain interest on a message board, but it's been years now since we discussed the subject that was our original impetus for meeting. Members have come and gone but the community lives on.

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