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May 24, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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What is the internet?

The internet is mindbogglingly massive. It literally contains the distilled dearth of information from the top two per cent of the privileged masses worldwide. You could quite easily compare it to the fabled library of Alexandria. You would, of course, be making a fallacious comparison. So what does the internet mean? What does it symbolise? And most fundamentally, what does it show us to be?

Geoff Stahl, a lecturer in advertising and sub-cultures in the Media Studies department at Victoria University, says that the internet is a “triangulation of market, audience and participant”. Which is a fantastic way of saying that at times we are targeted as a seller’s focus point, sometimes we sit back and watch stuff go on in front of us, and sometimes people watch us do our thing. Kind of like the real world. So what’s the difference between the internet and the real world?

We are all very aware of the massive scale of the internet, so perhaps it would be easiest to indulge in the petty vice of metaphor to gain insight. Bear me with me, if you will.

The Looking Glass

The internet, as mentioned above, is a repository for the brain farts of the most privileged people on earth. At some point or another, each person on the internet has decided, this is the time for me to leave a little piece of myself in the public domain. You can find it there if you’re willing to look hard enough. So it is essentially the world, as it relates to the privileged few. To dip into metaphor, the internet is a lot like the Wild West was a little over one hundred years ago. There are a few laws in place, but essentially you can get away with anything until you commit an act in a jurisdiction where it would be deemed inappropriate or illegal.

The internet is the last truly free ideological domain. It is a place for the learned and the intelligent to converse, share, idealise and realise. We are without restriction and can remake ourselves to be anything we want. We can research and discover the highest flights of intellect that mankind has reached. We can sate our deepest, darkest and most depraved desires. There is a place for us to revel in our most fringe interests and hobbies. The internet brings us, intellectually at least, closer to those who we never imagined were just like us. Stahl refers to this idea as “…an evolved ethos stemming from a commitment to a collective. It also, in some ways, rests on an idea of exclusivity.”

Each of these communities is, online, called a forum. Often there are numerous forums devoted to the same subject or the same collective interest. Within a forum there are numerous threads, each dealing with its own specific area of esoteric debate. Within these there are often sub-threads. Let’s think about it like this:

Each forum is a town. A town is made up of a number of different kinds of buildings. So the main part of the forum is going to be the town hall. Then you have the church, the store, the school and various specialty businesses. In order, you generally have a thread about the canon (or accepted truth of a matter), a thread about merch, collectibles or stuff associated with your interest that you can purchase, a thread for those who are new to the interest or who are looking to expand on their knowledge base, and then a whole bunch of other threads about everything else associated with the focus or focii of this town. Sorry, forum. Some of them might actually have nothing to do with the focii, they just happen to be things that like-minded people (in one area) want to discuss among themselves.

The players in this little farce

There is an enormous misconception surrounding people on the internet. Of course it’s funny to make jokes about how you were chatting to this super hot chick from just down the road and she suggested you meet up. So you toddle down to the carpark outside Pak’n’Save and wait, wearing the red hat and polka dot scarf you said you would. Suddenly a dirty grey panel van pulls up next to you with “Free Candy” poorly hand-painted on the side and a shadowy pot-bellied figure mutters through the open window, “Hey you going my way? I was just talking to you online.” Yeah don’t bother lying, everyone has a story like that.

It is imagined that somehow the internet allows you to be less authentic than you are in real life. But this is fundamentally not true. Unless you are some sort of psychopath, you constantly pretend things about yourself. Stahl sums it up well: “Real life is not necessarily more authentic than online life. We are constantly performing a version of ourselves that is situationally appropriate.” That pretty much says it all. You might not be pretending to be a 14-year-old girl when in fact you’re a 23-year-old guy, but you’re definitely pretending to like your boss even when you’d rather choke the life out of them with your bare hands. Or when you pretend to be civil with your boyfriend’s dropkick mates when you’d rather cuss them out and smack them in the head with the ugly fry-pan you got given by that weird chick who used to live in your hall of residence, but now lives in a possession-free commune.

All the internet does is lift the restraints of what we are physically capable of dissembling. As long as you can keep a decent thread of continuity running through your stream of lies, no one will ever be any the wiser. Or maybe you’re just letting loose the beast that dwells deep in your chest, but no one sees it IRL (in real life).

So where does this fit into our carefully crafted metaphor? In the glory days of the Wild West there was relatively little communication between the towns. So it was pretty easy to completely change your identity between towns and ride into a new one being someone utterly different. Of course it’s a little more than that on the internet, but for the purposes of this particular metaphor it will suffice.

The existential paradox

Of course into every life must fall a little rain, and in every good Western myth there is a bad guy. The spectre of privacy invasion looms large on the horizon here. Let’s have a look at a case study. At the moment the single most popular community site on the internet would arguably be Facebook. It exploded across the public consciousness, sweeping with it a whole new way of interacting. It also made the seven degrees of Kevin Bacon game a whole bunch easier ’cause suddenly you could see exactly how many steps removed you were from anyone else. So why is Facebook the villain of the piece, or at least the villain of this particular case study?

It has become more and more apparent in recent months that there are some glaring flaws in the privacy settings on Facebook. Not only that, there are some truly disturbing inadequacies in the terms and conditions of the Facebook user agreement. It turns out that none of the information that you upload onto Facebook actually belongs to you once it is uploaded. It becomes the sole property of that nebulous entity called Facebook. “But!” I hear you cry, “What’s so nebulous about Facebook? What can I possibly have to lose here?” A fair question indeed, intrepid user. It turns out that Mark Zuckerberg, the former Harvard student who graced us with his system, was perhaps a little less than forthcoming with his intentions. In documents very recently brought to light, he outlines his laissez-faire attitude towards the privacy concerns of the users of Facebook. This instant messenger conversation from 2004 highlights this particularly disturbing facet of this informational powerhouse’s personality with alacrity:

Zuckerberg: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard

Zuckerberg: Just ask.

Zuckerberg: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS

[Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?

Zuckerberg: People just submitted it.

Zuckerberg: I don’t know why.

Zuckerberg: They “trust me”

Zuckerberg: Dumb fucks.

An incredibly cavalier and distressing viewpoint from a man who runs a website that has somewhere in the region of 450 million users. I think the character of villain quite nicely fits Mr Zuckerberg in this particular metaphor.

We are anon and we are legion

Before you start tearing your clothes and covering your heads with ash, weeping and mourning for your lost privacy, we should first examine the curious heroes of our metaphor. Oddly enough, and as is so often the case, we find them where we would least suspect. The heroes of the internet are the oft-spoken-of but little-understood trolls. Their community exists within a forum called 4chan. In the main, the surface of 4chan and the sub-forum /b/ seems to be little more than degrading bigoted and inflammatory rhetoric. It sets out to instantly offend those with tender sensibilities and to hound the hypocrite and the outspoken status quo supporter. But with a little patience and some careful digging it is possible to begin to understand a little more of the denizens of this seemingly lawless town. Perhaps it is best to let them speak for themselves on the matter of their own psychology:

“Behold, a public Bulletin Board, Built of Both Brilliance and Barbarity By Bastards with Boners. This Bastion, no mere Bulwark of Boredom, is a Brutal Barrage of Blistering Bullshit, Barely Benevolent…But Behind the Bigotry and Boobs, Beyond the Bitter Broadcasts of Bragging Buffoons; here be the Body Politic. A Brotherhood of Blasphemy, Blessed with more Balls than Brains, Battling the Bland, the Bogus, the Benign. Bedlam? Bring it on.”

Within this touchingly poetic self-assessment of their own mentality lies a fundamental truth. While to all intents and purposes they appear to have only their own interests at heart, they do in fact have a decidedly rigid code of ethics. They wreak havoc on systems that they deem to be fundamentally imbalanced or unfair. When roused by an example or expression of injustice they take it upon themselves to rectify the situation. When this wrath is brought to bear, the sheer weight of numbers and varied areas of interests among the members ensures that most problems are resolved swiftly, in vengefully vigilante-esque fashion.

So within our metaphor they take the role of the group of unknown gunmen riding only for justice in its most primary of forms—the most fascinating thing about the Anon movement, for that is how they refer to themselves. Which is, in itself, a fascinating insight into their psychology, for it ensures that no one member can be found or singled out to be more important or above the rest. But as I was saying, the most interesting thing is that every time they exploit a flaw, they scrupulously document in a publicly accessible database. Every time they find a weakness in a website or seek to wreak havoc on a chain of stores that have unethical employment standards, they document every step of the process. This puts them in an entirely separate class from run-of-the-mill troublemakers and mischief seekers. But the essential fact remains that they work for the benefit of people rather than institutions.

All good things must come to an end

So there it stands. An examination of the internet through metaphor and discourse. It’s still not a friendly place to go, but interesting places are rarely completely safe. I have no doubt that for the most part you will continue on in the vein you have already, by perusing Facebook and occasionally swooping through Google to do some last-minute revision. But in the words of many, many generations of hard-toiling prospectors: “There’s gold in them there hills.” All that remains is for you to summon your courage and find it. And rest assured, if it all becomes too much for you and you find yourself at the mercy of the wicked denizens of the internet, if you seek honestly and fairly, there will be those who will help you.

Best of luck. It’s a wild frontier out there.

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Comments (7)

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  1. Closh Jeary says:

    Bah. Load of utter tosh.

  2. anon says:

    Dammit Cleary,

    1 & 2, newfag

  3. Josh Cleary says:

    I know 1 & 2 cancerfag, but ED is right fucking there. Ain’t nobody cant not see it. Sides which too much hateratin goin on on /b/ from the genpop. Figured it was about time someone took a fuckin stand. Which I didn’t see you doing.

  4. ED says:

    Represent that Josh

  5. YY says:

    For added irony, I then proceeded to stalk you on Facebook.

  6. Josh Cleary says:

    Yeah I’m not saying I don’t use Facebook. Just that it is the cornerstone of manipulative evil on the internet.

  7. Marky Mark says:

    Josh doesn’t exist anyway. He’s the same as Superior Mind. Totally in the heads of Salient staff,

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