Don't Fence Me In: The Internet's Bad Old Days Revisited

January 2013

There's a certain type of person who gravitates toward e-mail discussions, someone who likes the interplay among random people on a list, who wants to stir people to say something, anything, that can be read and responded to. And there's another type, the tidy type, let's say, who hates a cluttered inbox and works hard, like the soil-sensing mop-up robot in Wall-E, to eliminate all signs of extraneous chatter. There are a lot of others who, like me, fall between the extremes, but the long trail of breadcrumbs that makes up a long chain of discussion group e-mails usually begins with the former propounding some point important to a small number of people and ends with the latter saying, "Why are people discussing X on this list? This list is for Y. If you don't have anything to say about Y, shut up."

And then the air goes out of the conversation and it usually stops there, or it slows down considerably and the trail ends with a tiny crumb here or there, long after the casual reader has lost track of what it was all about in the first place. Extended Listserv discussions are by their nature hard to follow. In more than a decade and a half of various e-mail list memberships, I have never yet seen a discussion last through more than four messages without erupting in some unrelated conflict or an extended exchange about some minor branch of the original subject. Perhaps that's why they're becoming obsolete. Certainly, in this age of social media, the Listserv is a piece of ancient history akin to a Roman coliseum: interesting and still usable in some ways, a model for more modern forms, but no longer at the center of society. Maybe e-mail discussion lists will still have a place in future correspondence, or maybe they are destined to fade away. But if they go, I will be among those who feel a sense of loss, not because of their utility in fulfilling the purpose of some institution or other, but for their place in providing an outlet for feelings that are inexpressible in other spheres.

The first flame war I ever witnessed started with a high-minded discussion of principles of pedagogy or some similar subject, but it is the emotional, not the intellectual, content that lingers in my memory. About ten messages down the chain, someone objected to a part of someone else's message that had no bearing on the main subject; possibly it was someone objecting, on the grounds of privacy rights, to the airing of a story that reflected poorly on a particular student. Or maybe that memory comes from another battle. Whatever it was, though, it soon consumed a large portion of the graduate English department in a furious exchange of opinions. Some 83 e-mails later, the rabble-rousers were ruling the pack, and people were howling all sorts of insults. It was a Freudian scholar's dream: ids revealed everywhere.

Though I haven't seen anything quite as dramatic in any discussion list I've belonged to since, there are still flare-ups here and there of human passions being exhibited through an otherwise bloodless medium. The softer shades of emotion don't carry well in the world of the electron. Humor, particularly sarcasm, is famously difficult to discern online, and gentleness likewise is hard to detect without deep knowledge of the personality behind the pixels. The most proper use for an e-mail list, therefore, is the quotidian stuff of business: requests for information, calls for papers, inoffensively worded announcements of events, and occasional brags for one's own accomplishments and plaudits for those of others (laced delicately with envy, as with tiny traces of arsenic). And perhaps, as the more personal exchanges gravitate toward Facebook-type interfaces, these will become the only messages broadcast on most Listservs.

A certain organization of musicians that I belong to is trying to relocate its e-mail discussions to a dedicated discussion group site. The move will likely lessen the burden on the inboxes of the tidy Type A readers who don't like to read others' arguments. The intervention of a discussion moderator and the requirement that people register under their actual names also will surely modulate the conversation somewhat, making for a more civil and pertinent exchange. This last point is important because an unmoderated discussion board can invite still more virulent tirades than an e-mail list, particularly when the parties are allowed anonymity.

Those freewheeling days of anonymous online discussion boards are also retreating into the distance. Well do I remember the early days of the Fray, Slate magazine's now-defunct forum. Years ago, I was a Fray participant and an occasional stirrer of argument on one or two of the non-political boards (the atmosphere on the political boards was far too venomous for my taste, even with my tendency toward schadenfreude). In those days, the Fray was a Wild West of anonymity and trash talk, where posters with handles like ScarlettLove and PirateJoe could sling profane insults at each other all day. You registered for a handle that need not have any connection with your real identity, and then you were liberated to dish out whatever kind of whoop-ass you wanted on the rest of the population. This still happens on forums attached to certain newspapers and blogs, but that sort of hostage-taking of an entire day's worth of discussion is rapidly giving way to a more civilized order.

But the anonymity that was the bane of those boards was a large part of what made them attractive. There, people could speak their opinions without fear of reprisal from a spouse or parent or employer. Through reading and responding, strangers—a grandmother who had toughed it out as a first-generation immigrant to America, a hardworking mother of three infants, a hard-drinking ex-sailor—became part of each other's lives. While a few frequent contributors actually e-mailed each other after a while and managed to meet each other in real life, no one, for the most part, knew who was behind the handles or whether anyone was telling the truth. It didn't really matter. The board was a crucible of the raw ingredients of the psyche, a capacious vessel into which we could pour whatever seditious thoughts and emotions were spilling over from lives that were otherwise under strict observation by the people we actually knew.

At Slate, a comment system based on social media has replaced the old forum, and while it's still possible to create an anonymous identity on the site, there are more built-in controls. There are still some trolls, repeaters, and curmudgeons, but many commenters opt to use their real names and connect their accounts with their Facebook identities. The anarchy of universal anonymity has been tamed; the power of masked men and women wielding words as bludgeons is much smaller. Commenters without a fixed online identity are subject to hectoring and distrust, particularly if they're the kind who throw a single Molotov cocktail of violent criticism and run off into the ether. Elsewhere, too, in comment sections, on discussion boards, and even in those last vestiges of e-mail discussion lists, the flame wars are dying down. The Internet is growing up, its adolescent passions dying down. The settlers have become concerned with preserving their respectability, because the boss-woman or husband or ex-best friend is watching. But conveying subtlety still is not the Internet's forte, so once the heated arguments are gone, what gradations of feeling are left? Someday, the new order may bring a new kind of artist, the communicator who bridges the gap between emoticons and display type to transmit a wider spectrum of sentiments. Then, perhaps, the departure of the old disorder will count as a far smaller loss to the spectator with a fondness for vicarious drama.