I'm reading internet guru Jaron Lanier's new book, You Are Not A Gadget. I confess that it's taken me some time to not be put off by Mr. Lanier's appearance: usually, the sight of white guys in dreadlocks holding forth on abstract social issues just sets my eyes rolling. But, I've managed to get past that reaction--he is a columnist in my favorite science magazine, after all--and so I've curled up with the book, respectfully listening to what he has to say. I may attempt a review of it for Amazon, later.
So I was reading along, and encountered this passage:
There are recognizable stages in the degradation of anonymous, fragmentary communication. If no pack has emerged, then individuals start to fight. The is what happens all the time in online settings. A later stage appears once a pecking order is established. Then the members of the pack become sweet and supportive of one another even as they goad one another into ever more intense hatred of nonmembers.
I've been online for fifteen years, and I confess that I am not innocent, in either sense of the word, of this phenomenon. To howl and spray-mark among like-minded peers is one of the attractions of forums on the internet, after all. As I grow older, I like to think that I've become more receptive to engaging people of differing views in a civil way, without turning into one of those apathetic types who just don't care anymore about what happens in the world.
But think of a real life pack, for a moment. Have you ever seen a nature doco, where the top hyena or baboon or whatever gets killed, and then the other beasties squabble for some time afterwards, until a new leader emerges, and then things settle down? Something broadly similar happened to one of my formerly favorite blogs, Little Green Footballs. Only instead of the leader being deposed, it was the pack.
I was banned from LGF about two months ago, details here, if you're interested. I haven't been back since. I don't do the stalker thing, and I couldn't see myself pressing my palms and nose up against the glass of the locked door. I've moved on, though I still miss many of the commenters there, of all political persuasions.
Back to the Lanier passage. The original cohort of commentators at LGF, as it hit the big time in the mid-Aughties, were right-wing anti-jihadists, including me. They grew in number and vehemence as LGF became more prominent. Now, we come to each stage of our lives as apprentices. For a long time, Charles Johnson the proprietor seemed to think it sufficient to feature a disclaimer at the top of the comments, and delete the more egregious comments occasionally.
But then came the now-famous revolution in his attitudes. He became more alarmed & repulsed by some of the people ranged alongside him than by the jihadists opposite him. A careful study of the evidence led him to accept the reality of human-caused global climate change. Didn't really bother me; I had always considered him as a real, thinking person, rather than just an internet brand gone all New Coke-y. But long-time participants started getting banned--the details are familiar to any likely readers of this piece--and the commentariat started shifting leftwards, by attrition and replacement. By the time I was booted, liberals and leftists were coming into the ascendancy, and conservatives were keeping their heads down, when not being banned weekly. The old pack had been dispersed, and a new pack was coalescing.
Sidebar: A certain prominent LGF commenter has acquired a reputation as an enforcer on the comment threads. If she's reading, she may think that I harbor resentment towards her. I do not. She didn't ban me; Charles did. She didn't "out" me; I was never hiding. She may remember the volleys of profanity she hurled at me on a number of occasions, and succumb to the natural tendency of projection, and imagine that I was equally hostile with her. It isn't so. It was quickly obvious that we were never going to be best buddies, she and I, but for all the times we crossed cursors, there were other quite friendly exchanges. If she tries hard, she may even remember instances where I made extra efforts to help her celebrate her new life together with one lizardoid, or to make peace with still another.
"...the members of the pack become sweet and supportive of one another even as they goad one another into ever more intense hatred of nonmembers." As the community stood early this year, most of the LGF commenters were decent folks, appreciative of the chance to engage people of opposing views in a mostly civil, mostly intelligent manner, most of the time. But there were enough of the afore-mentioned "enforcers" to make one feel that this balance was temporary, and unanimity would once again be the insisted-upon norm. Everyone would once again be running with the pack.