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The Online Melting Pot, May 2, 1999 :: Ben Turner's Soapbox

 

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archived soapbox: May 2, 1999
"The Online Melting Pot" [permalink]
    keywords: internet, web
    soapbox #: 185
    written: May 2, 1999
    words: 1823

"The Online Melting Pot", an Essay

Why do long-time Internet users who are supposedly wise and experienced resort to attacking newbies and excluding people who do not belong? Why do stock trading channels carry on the belief that all young people are bound to cause trouble eventually, so they should be banned? Why do mildly notable Web people make a distinction between people who know how to use technology and those who don't? Why is there a growing ideal, as the Internet matures and becomes older, of how things SHOULD be, and how things used to be?

This wasn't supposed to happen to our little old Internet. Those real-world mental barriers and prejudices weren't supposed to pollute the online world. Everyone is supposed to belong, everyone has access to information, everyone has a chance to prove themselves in this digitopia. The Internet is a world without boundaries, where people are free to bend and mold things in whichever way they want, to contort things like traditional business models into online Amazon.com's with low overhead and JIT inventories, to "misuse" things like the stock market by providing online trading at discount commissions, to break the rules of commercial software by releasing open source to whoever wants to download and use and improve it. Who would think even these pioneers of the Internet and the Web would eventually turn into greying, old, conservative fuddy-duddies who bicker about the old days?

The catalyst for this Soapbox was something someone I do not like said about a recent incident in which a woman sent out an e-mail a date of hers wrote to her. In the e-mail, he told her why he didn't want to continue to see her. She sent the e-mail out onto the 'Net, where it of course spread like wildfire. The guy got lots of negative criticism from complete strangers, and apparently even his real life address was passed around online.

Read Salon.com's take on the events: http://www.salon.com/health/sex/urge/1999/05/11/bryan_winter/.

The guy commenting on it said that it was "[m]ore proof that most Americans are inherently cruel, and don't have a damn clue about how to use technology properly." Based just on the article, I don't really know how he came to that conclusion without knowing more. Like a puss, he has now changed it to "[m]ore proof that most Americans don't understand how to use technology properly or think about the consequences of their actions." Isn't it interesting how web authors edit what they originally write on? As if they lack the conviction to say what they really mean the first time and stick to it?

On the Internet, I think everyone belongs. That was supposed to be one of the original and constant tenets on the 'Net. It's a world completely opposite of that of the real world -- the geekier you are, the more powerful you are. The ultimate would seem to be digitizing yourself and living inside the system -- the closest humans can come at this point is locking themselves in dark rooms and soaking up as much information as they can. The glamorous and the popular and the celebrities and the jocks enjoy no advantages online, their jaunts to special AOL chat room events protected by extra security and safeguards to make sure they're not embarrassed or hacked or overcome in this foreign land they try to take a part in. "Yeah, I use the Web all the time!" "Sure you do, Mr. Glamour Boy," the chat rooms would clamor.

Yet, some of the geeks are turning on the Internet. They've decided that they know how the Internet is. They know how it should be. And they're going to deride those who don't share in their vision and knowledge.

How can you decide who belongs on the Internet? The Internet is jacked up with exceptions that break long-standing rules. It's full of eBay's, MP3 advocacy sites, online multiplayer game servers, personal diarists' web sites, and more freedom of movement and expression than our predecessors could ever envision coming out of silicon, fiber optic, and metal. It's full of ideas that were never thought to work, people who were never thought to do anything spectacular in their lives, outcasts and atypicals and unimpressives.

My whole thing is this: when it comes to the Internet, you can't say what will or what won't work. You can't predict it. You can't judge who belongs and who doesn't, because there's a little niche for everyone online. You're just a small part of it. You contribute your own little piece. The information's out there to belong or not belong or be whoever you want to be. About the only thing you need to be successful online is sense enough to know how to find what you need. You can't stop the Internet, you can't even slow it down. Even the oldbies are making the error of trying to tame it.

So if you see anyone making such outlandish claims like deciding who and who shouldn't use a newsgroup or a web site, then you know what to think of them. This extends towards computers in general, too. What the Internet's most powerful at these days is reducing the elite structures only ventured by the most wealthy and privileged people to more of a common man's tool. Just imagine what it will be like when Internet access is more common for less financially successful people, and to virtually computer-free countries in Africa and the Middle East! It will be wonderful to have millions upon millions more people contributing to the network of ideas and human genius on the Internet.

This, I would imagine, is how most people THINK that they think about the Internet. But so few people actually want it and believe in it. I think many Netizens have some sort of subconscious aversion towards letting new, inexperienced people onto the 'Net. As I read in an article today, and I quote loosely, "It's the new immigrant philosophy -- shut the door after I get into the country." But how many people actually understand that the Internet only benefits from having more people, no matter how they use computers or how well they know how to use them?

For that matter, how many people still envision Neal Stephenson's Metaverse eventually becoming the true landscape of the Internet? Why do people turn on something and try to fashion it the way they think it should be, when it was the one that first accepted them and let them thrive and grow? Does this not sound like how modern religions interpret the original texts of their beginnings?

Porn should be online. One day all those tremendously sexually repressed people will come to accept how big of an influence porn has had on the Internet. E-mail spammers should be online, too. How could I say such a thing? Well, e-mail spamming should be made legal, as long as it is easy avoidable and companies acquire their e-mail databases through ethical means. If e-mail spamming is formalized, you can at least set your e-mail program to filter out e-mails that have a required [SPAM] in the subject. Software of course should be made to do this by default, so that you don't need to be a rocket scientist in order to filter out spam. Teens should be online. The earlier, the better, if you ask me. Teens exist in their own world, part of their own culture, which parents and older people still write off as puerile and immature. Which it is! But kids rule the Internet and old person after old person forgets what it was like being a teen, living in a world where everything you enjoy seems stupid and idiotic to your elders. Teens give the Internet enthusiasm and energy, and make the Internet more liquid because of their strong desire for fresh and new things.

Murder images? Child pornography? Gun advocacy? Bomb-making instructions? These are tougher issues. You cannot easily write them off as just being illegal, because who's truly to say what's illegal if everything's supposed to be allowed. I suppose the distinction to be made is that harm to others should be illegal. Since everyone belongs, no one should be excluded, or threatened, or physically (computer/'Net account/online breaches included) attacked. The enforceable offense is depriving another of their right to live or use the 'Net or whatever. This would mean gun advocacy and bomb-making instructions would be allowed. They are not inherently evil or offensive. KKK advocacy would be illegal, for obvious reasons.

Cracking? Pirating? CD ripping and burning? Well, yeah it's illegal. Do I support it? I don't encourage it, but yes, I do it. I understand how the people who do it feel about it. What does that say? I don't know. You can't justify this type of activity completely. I suppose this is the geek rebel type of attitude, another feeling the Internet grew up with and thrived off of. That's all I can say. In fifty years, I bet this software piracy won't even be an issue anymore. We're bound for a huge change in perception of intellectual property and copyright.

I guess that would be the absolute minimum of law on the Internet, in my opinion. I care not for exclusionary ideas, channel bots that kick on use of profanity and unpopularity, Microsoft's anti-Linux group, and other attempts to obfuscate and sabotage the 'Net. Don't people see that we all win with the Internet?

I believe everyone belongs online. I believe there aren't enough people online, and definitely not enough different people online. I remain certain of that. This is not to say I have dropped my other views, namely, that I hate being around people and I deeply loathe the lack of consideration of others. But that does not mean I want to exclude them from sharing the same publicly accessible things I do. My privacy is my right to have, though. Even the peoples' opinions I disagree with in my Soapbox, I still acknowledge their right to speak up. Feel the same way? Visit a Serbian political web site. Go to CNN.com. Compare. See how you feel about it. Do you practice what you preach, and say it because you mean it?

Meanwhile, this site remains open to anyone with Internet access, regardless of browser (yes, this site should work fairly well for the blind and for the Lynx browser, with a little extra effort to scroll up and down) or race or sex or opinion or computer knowledge or any of that. And if I could help with the Internet access part, I would. :)


 
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