Super Jayhawk (super_jayhawk) wrote,
Super Jayhawk

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So this is where we ended up... in the Age of Mean.

When I first got online over a quarter of a century ago, BBS's were in their infancy, and the rules for online discourse were only starting to get figured out. There were of course disagrements and "flamewars" (although the word didn't exist yet) but in general, if you were actually online talking to someone at all, you had to be reasonably intelligent to use a computer and get online (with some rare but notable exceptions). Especially in the days when you had to find out the numbers to the BBS (and they weren't in the phone book) hand-type the AT commands to call it.

Then, of course, the online world exploded, first with the June 1983 release of WarGames came out and every nine-year old begged their parents for a modem so they could hack into NORAD. The online world was never the same. Same thing for the AOLers flooding the online world the minute they were unleashed upon UseNET during Eternal September a decade later. The signal-to-noise ratio of the entire UseNet went to hell after that, I can't remember the last time I even tried to read anything in it. It was a sad loss of a valuable online resource to pollution by stupidity.

And so now, here we are. While the video above is hilarious, it underscores the sad truth that the online world has become a much more vicious and ignorant place. If it's not enough to worry about porn spammers and phishers these days that might steal your identity, now we have to deal with the pollution spewed forth from nasty and ignorant miscreants that have somehow learned to type, although apparently not spell. (And this in an age of spell checkers)

But how did we get here? To a certain extent, I blame Geraldo, Jerry Springer and even Morton Downey, Jr. for their antics and mob-rousing tactics where they showed the masses that chair-throwing and nose-breaking were just fine and dandy. They ended up with huge ratings and made lots of money, but the damage they did resonates to this day.

But their stunts were enabled by the abolishing of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, and suddenly all bets were off. Remember in the old days, when media outlets were required to provide an opposing viewpoint when giving editorial content? This was lampooned most famously in SNL's "Point/Counterpoint" where Dan Ackroyd would respond "Jane, you ignorant slut!", but the basic idea on real TV was there and there was a certain basic civility about the discussion.

So then the media become a lawless no-holds-barred cesspool of vitriol and invective that such people like Limaugh and Hannity wallow in and spew right back out. And we now have an entire generation of people that have grown up not only desensitized to the constant personal attacks and character assassination that go on all the time in the media, but being fed such nastiness for so long has given us a culture where such things are not only acceptable, but actively encouraged. The snarkier you are, the cooler you think you are, or so the story goes. It got worse nearly eight years ago when our country was bitterly divided by the theft of the Presidency and the fearmongering that ran rampant after 9/11. But I'll get more into that particular problem in a different post. But I'll say at this point that it would probably make Lee Atwater weep for joy to see how things are now.

I guess it was only a matter of time before the tidal wave of nastiness swamped the online world. Message boards filled with hate, ignorant people pushing hearsay and unsubstantiated garbage as fact, and this can have very real consequences in the real world, as evidenced by
this news. Even the message boards that I read to keep up with my Jayhawks tend to be overrun with nastiness and snark, and that's even from fellow Jayhawk fans. Worse yet are situations like the death threats made against Java instructor Kathy Sierra showed just how out of hand everything has gotten.

I know that civility is dead, but it wasn't always this way, and it's not right.

Many people have claimed that anonymity is the problem, but there were screen names (they called them "handles" like the CB term, back in the day) and that really wasn't a factor. I always thought the BBS's that mandated real names were boring and lame, and stayed away from them.

No, the difference now is that nobody's driving the bus in so many places online, and it becomes a lawless Wild West town where whoever's the nastiest and mean-spirited drives the intelligent people away.
In the BBS days, when you logged onto a board, you were logging on to the Sysop's (System Operator) computer, likely the only one he had. If you got nasty and started driving people away, the Sysop was usually the first person to put a stop to it. In so many places in this Brave New World now, there's nobody minding the store.

And no, I don't think that bringing in a bunch of net.cops is going to solve anything or result in anything other than put a chill on freedom of expression. The change needs to come, like it did back in the late 80's, at a cultural level, and by enough people deciding that enough is enough and putting a stop to the nastiness.
Haters and griefers do what they do because they think it's all a game, and there are no consequences. I knew of people back in the day that got themselves kicked off of every BBS in town for being nasty, and they would try to create new accounts constantly. (This was also when the sysop would verify your account was real before you could do anything).

The change must come from all of us. While I'm not all that hopeful that anything will get better in the near term, eventually having a nation not torn apart by war and greed will go a long way. I also think education is a huge part of the battle. As a kid in grade school, you end up having to take years of classes on how to write essays and develop critical thinking, but the schools never really teach how to communicate or interact with people online. It has to start in the classroom, and it has to start with the kids. And it has to start with all of us.
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