The Spread of Original Sin – a commentary on The Original Sin of Internet Culture (by Michael Sacasas)

The Spread of Original Sin – a commentary on The Original Sin of Internet Culture (by Michael Sacasas)

Michael Sacasas is always an interesting and enlightening read. I want to expound on his most recent blog entry: The Original Sin of Internet Culture

(note: I started this post the week his article came out – October 28th, 2018 –  and it sat in my Drafts folder for 40 months,  before I finally finished it.)

I read this article through the lens of my own experience as someone who was in college in the late 1980’s, and I saw it as a scathing rebuke of the idea that the Internet is somehow a “virtual” world that is populated with “virtual” people.  This thinking – (as the author of the article describes it: “pretending like online life wasn’t real life“) – is a poisonous lie and very likely the reason so many of us are such assholes to others with whom we disagree politically, religiously and morally. Once we have bought into the “parallel universes” view of online and offline worlds, it is so much easier to be cruel and insensitive to people with aliases and avatars, or people with Photoshopped and filtered faces, or couples with joint Facebook accounts, or “acquaintance strangers” from our past who have no real place in our offline world but who take up residence on the screens of our online world.

Usenet was the primordial online discussion forum created in 1980 as a way to share ideas, papers, news, etc. among academics and university students. In the 80’s, when I was in college, most universities that were connected to Usenet  had “High Speed” leased lines (as opposed to dial-up modems) which made posting to the newsgroups virtually instantaneous. I had access to the university Usenet feed via a terminal in the Computer Sciences Lab, and I was so enamored of the ability to get near-real-time feedback from someone on the other side of the country, or even the other side of the world, that I decided I had to be part of this infrastructure in some way other than as a spectator; I wanted to be able to expand it into my off-campus life. And I didn’t just want to access Usenet, I wanted to build something that others could use in a similar way, without needing access to a directly connected terminal in a Computer Sciences lab. A friend and fellow student at the time was running something called a BBS (Bulletin Board System) on his Amiga computer at home. People with computers and special software could call into his computer using a modem, and download images he had created on his Amiga (8 bit art) and share theirs. But they could also send each other messages, and that was the part that intrigued me.

Sometime around 1989, a year after I was married and the year my first child was born, I spent a chunk of my student loan money on a pre-built 386 SX PC with a 2400 Baud modem, and installed a copy of Wayne Bell’s WWIV BBS Software. I had decided on WWIV because it had the ability to connect to Usenet through a third-party “door” (an app that ran independently of the BBS software), and could exchange messages through FidoNet (a popular messaging and discussion network in the BBS world not unlike Usenet).

As my BBS grew (to multiple modems with simultaneous users) I added games like TradeWars (a type of MUD – or multi-user dungeon) where players could compete, and could send messages (or taunts) to someone they were playing against; The BBS also had discussion forums (native and via FidoNet) – places where users could comment on someone else’s post but – and this is critical – NOT in real time.  A comment would sit in a queue until the next time the BBS connected to an upstream node and passed posted comments around to the rest of the world. In many cases, once a comment was posted, the person making the comment had at least a small window of time to reconsider the content or tone and either edit or delete the message before it was handed off to the general public worldwide (which usually happened late at night when long-distance calls were cheaper and modems had to dial out to a parent node to hand off any messages that had been posted that day). Some Bulletin Board Systems even had a review process for comments, which allowed the system operator (Sysop) to review comments before they were submitted for public consumption. This self-policing (or low-level policing by the sysop), helped keep the animosity down and the general civility of the discussion forums was pretty tolerable.

Essentially, the BBS world started out its online discussion life with something of a built-in cool down period before propagation.  Usenet did not, and in the early years, the difference in animosity levels was noticeable to anyone with a foot in both the BBS world and the Usenet world.  Usenet was at times so hostile that it gave rise to one of the immutable facts of Internet communication: Godwin’s Law, which quips that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1“.

Eventually, even FidoNet turned toxic.  I think this was a direct result of at least three technological improvements that effectively eliminated the aforementioned cool-down period: affordable advances in modem technology (allowing nodes to communicate with each other at speeds that rivaled leased lines and which significantly cut the transmission times of mail packets), improvements in the FidoNet message tossers (the small programs that gathered posted messages in a forum and packaged them up for delivery and distribution to the rest of the network), and a large number of BBS’s that were connected to zones where long distance charges were no longer an encumbrance that required once-a-day distribution .

Suddenly, FidoNet – which was arguably one of the most democratizing creations of the early online world (in that it freely allowed for millions of users worldwide to send messages both directly to each other and collectively to discussion forums) became mockingly known by users and Sysops as “Fight-O-Net”.

Ultimately, services like AOL and Earthlink became ubiquitous (and synonymous with “online” and “Internet” for a large portion of those newly connected to the Internet). When Microsoft included nearly-idiot-proof internet connectivity right out of the box in Windows 95, and companies like Gateway 2000, Compaq and other PC makers began to put modems in EVERY computer, the composition of online users moved from a select few technically inclined users to basically anyone able to plug in a phone line and double-click the AOL icon. In September of 1993, AOL integrated Usenet access into its application directly.  The influx of new, non-technical and inexperienced Internet users overwhelmed Usenet with so many new people that September of 1993 was dubbed Eternal September– a snarky reference to the seasonal flood of new Freshman on campuses with Usenet access.   Only this flood never abated.

It is unfortunate I think, that early adopters of the Internet – those who came up with the words “virtual” and “cyber” – conflated the genuinely virtual imaginary worlds of gaming (where taunting and jibing in real time is generally acceptable and expected) and the real world of electronically-enabled social networking (where taunting and trolling is – or ought to be – considered uncivil). By calling both “virtual”, we can be lulled into believing that the people we are interacting with on Social Media are no different than the NPCs and other players in the imaginary world of a game where it is acceptable to shoot someone in the face whilst taunting them about their gaming skills.

Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Discord and even Tumblr are unlike the virtual worlds of an online game, and much more like the real-time (Messenger, Direct Messaging, etc.) or near-real-time (posting, tweeting and commenting) interactive world of Usenet. And now, with Facebook entering the world of real-time avatar interaction (I refuse to call it virtual interaction), Meta interactivity, like Zoom and Teams meetings, is going to be as “real” as any face-to-face interaction, only Meta will be encumbered by the added layer of interpersonal dissociation that comes with having a real-time interaction with (and as) a human being masquerading behind an avatar.

As it stands now, it is practically impossible to find a discussion of any subject with more than 20 commenters on Facebook, Twitter or Reddit that doesn’t prove Godwin’s Law. This will only get worse with real-time avatar interactions like Meta envisions. Like Michael Sacasas says in this blog post “we are, in fact, far worse versions of ourselves online.”

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