Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Fallacy of the “Internet Community”

O Lord, help me not to despise or oppose what I do not understand. ~William Penn

Years ago, the folks at Coca Cola, attempting to cash in on the love-peace-flower-power generation of the sixties created a lovely advertisement featuring lovely young people standing on a lovely mountain holding lovely bottles of Coke and singing about buying the world a Coke (thereby putting lots of lovely money in Coca Cola's coffers). The premise of the ad (aside from buy lots of Coke) was that if you could just bring people together, they could see past the differences of their governments and love and peace would rule (sing a fast chorus of “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius”, then return to reading).
The ad actually got resurrected recently, but somehow it just didn't seem to have the impact this time around. I think the reason for this is that people are beginning to realize that the premise of the ad may have been a fine concept but was, in reality, hooey. The Internet is teaching us this the hard way.
The 'Net has many faces, but they're pretty familiar when you get right down to it. It's a mailman, the Sears catalog, and a huge magazine rack. Then there's this “Internet community” thing. If one is to believe the pundits, out there in cyberspace is an electronic equivalent of communes with people of like minds just exchanging great ideas and good vibes.
This is more hooey.
What the Internet “communities” are proving is that human beings are essentially anti-social, vulgar, ill-tempered, and xenophobic. It's nice to imagine that people are inherently good, but history, archaeology, and anthropology are showing a different story. Basically, small groups can get along with each other reasonably well, because they have few differences and their goals are pretty much the same. If someone steps out of line, he or she ends up starting their own little group.
Bring a couple of disparate groups together, and one of two things can happen. If the groups are pretty similar, and there are sufficient resources for both groups, they'll probably get together. If the groups are somewhat different or resources aren't adequate to support both, they'll fight with each other. This is caused by a reptilian remnant living in our brains. What curtails our killing strangers every time someone moves into the neighborhood are higher brain functions located in the main grey lumpy section called “morality” or “civilized behavior.”
So what about those Internet communities? Well, the 'Net can allow you to be anonymous. Or, you can at least feel confident that there's physical isolation from the people in the community. Either one of these situations seems to bring out the reptile brain in a lot of the community members. The sort of hate, bigotry, jingoism, and general nastiness that we see on the news each day gets manifested in forums, chat rooms, and web sites. Someone who hates the French is not only not going to understand them any better because a French person posts on Slashdot, but they will also take the occasion to respond to the “debate” in a manner every bit as vituperative and illogical as any racist argument in favor of the supremacy or inferiority of an ethnic group.
Now, if you're waiting for the punchline, whereby I magically solve the problem of humanity's inhumanity to itself, you're going to be disappointed. Well, probably not all that disappointed, because after all, it isn't costing you anything to read this. If you were paying for the privilege, now that would be a reason to be disappointed ... and probably really ticked off. Of course, if you were paying for this, then I have to resort to proofreading, researching, and actually attempting to write good stuff. So it's just as well, then, for everyone concerned.
Moving right along...
Since you're not paying, calm yourself. While I certainly don't have a magic solution, I do know one thing. We're going to have to stop expecting Coca Cola, the Internet, the media, or any other deus ex machina (look it up) to come and save us from ourselves.
It's our reptile, and it's up to each one of use to tame it.

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