The Internet is a Public Place – Act Like It

Working on other projects around the sonnet thing was one of the challenges I wanted to confront by doing the sonnet thing in the first place. It may not be obvious to others why this is challenging for me – my internal dialogue runs something like: “how come you can write this thirteen-thousand word post, but somehow writing two separate two-thousand word posts is too much for one day? Why is one accomplishment per day the limit of your capability?”

There are a lot of things that are hard for me that it seems like other people find easy, but I assume that I’m not alone in this, in part because I’ve been informed that I’m not. When I confess how difficult some ordinary things are for me, people respond with relief and gratitude. I voice my weariness, and all around me people set down their burdens. Making this kind of vulnerable connection with another human being is important to me, and in my opinion it’s vital to understanding other humans and living with them happily. In this endeavor, the internet has both helped and harmed our ability to interact. But that’s not the internet’s fault. It’s our fault.

Internet dating in particular is tough, in particular for men. There’s a supply-and-demand problem, for one – dick as a product is way over-stocked, and the demand just isn’t there. It’s clear that the best solution would be to periodically take dick off the menu, like the McRib, to get folks hankering for it, but unfortunately men seem totally unable to go their own way without making it all about obsessing over women anyway.

But there’s another reason men are having trouble, and it’s an issue that all of us, regardless of gender, struggle with: the internet is a weird fuckin’ place to approach people. It feels different from the real world, and we’re not sure if the same rules apply, and everyone you meet will tell you that you’re doin’ it wrong.

Long ago, in the wild, wild west…

The early internet was the province of dorks, early adopter tech-fetishists already involved in the tech community – in other words, primarily men. I’m about to piss on these people’s shoes a bit, so let me preface it by saying that I’m mostly intending it with love. As a femme-shaped person who plays videogames, I’ve been privileged to love a great many young, brilliant, geeky white boys; it’s like a sweet tooth for me. Unfortunately, my love often caused me to excuse their bad behavior, and that’s kind of how we got to this point as a society in the first place — decades of saying, “I know he said that horrible thing, but I can’t prove he meant it, so that makes saying it okay.”

These men were fostered by decades of the video game industry focusing on the young white male demographic to the exclusion of any other, decades of school and society teaching that “technology is for men, except sewing machines and food processors. Go back to your girl technology. Go back to your kitchen.

These young white males built communities that often were (and in some cases remain) aggressively hostile to non-white, non-male users. Usenet fed into Something Awful fed into 4chan and offshoot image boards and then into what’s become “the Manosphere.” While the internet expanded and user demographics changed, there were always a few communities that nurtured and fed pugnacious, vitriolic attitudes toward women, people of color, and anyone else who might fuck with the comfortable worldview of a middle-class white teenager.

Still, the internet feels like a refuge to all of us in some ways, not just white boys. Many of us who found the “real world” cruel and isolating have found communities online that make us feel seen, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It makes sense that we’ve felt like the internet was somehow separate from the rest of the world, not subject to the real world’s rules and dangers, not requiring you to gird yourself when logging in the way you would when going out.

But the internet has grown up now, and so have we, and that means it’s long past time we started dealing with reality:

The internet is public.
You are “in public” right now.
You might want to act like it.

You’ll find that when you truly internalize this, a lot of the confusing questions you have about how to interact online fall away. If you wouldn’t behave that way in public, you shouldn’t behave that way online, because the internet is public.

Should I send a picture of my dick to that woman?

Would you whip out your dick and show it to a woman on the street? Would that be a great way to get a date?

Should I stalk this person’s social media and constantly pester and monitor them wherever they go online?

Would you follow a person everywhere they went in the real world? Would you expect that to make them like you? Do we have a word for this in the real world?

Should I flirt with that girl while she’s running her video game stream on Twitch?

Should you flirt with people who are at work, especially when their work requires them to a) stick around and b) be nice to you? Or should you recognize that a person trying to earn a living online is at work, quietly make your interest known with a private approach (a note, a DM) and let them make the next move?

Should I message that person some more if they haven’t responded to the last ten messages?

Would you continue prodding someone in the shoulder and saying, “Hey” at them every hour on the hour if you were saying it to their face? Would you be surprised to get punched for that kind of behavior? Would you still be so confused about whether this person wants your company or not if you could see them physically struggling to avoid you?

Should I jump into this involved debate that I don’t know anything about?

Would you charge into the center of two people having a conversation on the street? Would you expect those people to praise you for doing that? Would you be outraged if they didn’t immediately include you in their conversation, explain context to you, educate you?

Should I take this information as accurate without checking the facts from another source?

Would you believe whatever you read on a flyer stuck to a light pole? Would you take that flyer home, print up more, and share them around your family while defending the reputation of whoever the fuck stapled it to the pole?

Drooling demagogues on every corner

The internet is a place where people work and transact business with strangers, just like the real world. In that context, you need to treat people and information the way you would treat them on a public street.

Say someone runs up to you, slavering and babbling about conspiracy theories – in public, you’d step around the dude and try not to make eye contact, right? But when we’re on the internet, suddenly it’s, “Hmm, that drooly gentleman seems to have some trenchant observations about immigrants; I’m sure he’s done his research. Let me just subscribe to his newsletter.”

I’m sorry to be the one to burst this bubble, but just because you’re not wearing pants while you’re browsing, that doesn’t mean everyone who talks to you online deserves to see you without pants. Just because their voice comes into your living room, that doesn’t mean they’re the kind of person you should let into your house.

A convenient boundary

These days we all seem to muddle around the internet acting like it’s kind of public, like when we choose to expose ourselves, it’s public then, but when we don’t want that, well then the internet is our backyard, and how dare a stranger tell us how to act in our own space! It’s a convenient boundary that allows us to hand our keys to any corporation that wants them, wave our naked asses and genitals about wherever we go with unsecured browsing, and then get outraged when other people comment on the stuff we just dropped all over the public street. This is an Emperor’s New Clothes thing – we’re going out naked and then accusing the person who pointed it out of exposing us.

Now let me be clear – this is not me blaming the victims of doxxing for being doxxed. Being secure on the internet requires a lot more technical knowhow than being reasonably safe in the real world, and the people who know how to secure your internet often have a vested interest in stealing your stuff. Corporations who sell your data, and jerks who steal it, don’t want you to take care of yourself, so it is in their best interests to tell you that there’s nothing concrete you can do to protect yourself, that the rules are fluid and you can never know if someone’s trying to hurt you. They want you to believe that in this thrilling new era of human interaction, they get to set your boundaries wherever they want them to be, and you don’t get to complain.

We actually do know how to act

But this is not actually a thrilling new era, not as far as social interaction is concerned. Humans interact roughly the same whether we’re doing it with our mouths or our thumbs. We rage, we cry, we cheer, we fuck and love and hate and share, and we establish rules for doing those things so that we can all do them in the same space without too much violence and destruction. Even more basic than the higher-level social rules that we think of as “etiquette” – which fork, hold the lady’s arm, etc. Those things are social constructs of the time. But the fundamental assumptions we make in social interaction transcend culture and generation, because they’re the fundamental assumptions you need to make to have a conversation at all. These are things like:

  • “Overtly hostile or intimidating behavior is threatening regardless of intent.”
  • “Telling strangers everything about you instantly is not a great idea.”
  • “If you talk at the same time as another person, neither of you will hear the other properly.”
  • “Vulnerable people are more vulnerable in public.”
  • “Not everyone always tells the truth, and you should apply your own intellectual and moral standards to what you see and hear before investing yourself in it.”

By the time we’re adults, we know these rules – the “social contract” – well enough to not cause problems most of the time, even those of us with brainweasels that make social interaction taxing or frightening. By the time we’re adults, even the assholes among us do know when they’re acting like assholes, if only by the looks on all the faces around them – they just keep pretending they don’t because it feels like doing something wrong innocently is… slightly less wrong. The truth we’re trying so hard to avoid acknowledging is that we are not innocent. We actually do know how to act in public.

Every single day, we follow the rules we’re pretending we don’t know.

We know that we shouldn’t expose our genitals, or harass others. We know that we should try to protect children, and not display people’s private info in public places, and not interrupt working people with our non-work needs. The only time we get “confused” about those things is when we think we might be able to get away with doing the thing we know is wrong while pretending we thought it was okay “this time.” We split hairs and equivocate to relieve our guilt, to make it not SO bad that we went ahead and trampled someone’s boundaries. But… we still did it. We still did the thing we all agreed not to, the thing we expect no one else will do to us. No amount of excuses will change that fact. We knew better, and we did it anyway when it seemed like we could get away with it.

It’s the same as men who say, “I don’t even know how to act around women anymore!” They do know, though, don’t they? They actually know exactly how they’re supposed to act around women, because they’re grown men who manage to hold down jobs and not get arrested at parent-teacher conferences. Every single day, they follow the rules they’re pretending they don’t know. Apparently they know how to act when dealing with their kid’s teacher, or their female boss, or the librarian at the university… but when they’re dealing with a woman they have social power over, suddenly the lines get blurry. Because the confusion is them trying to get away with something they already know is wrong, while blaming the people asking them to stop for not making the rules clear enough.

Internet hygiene: how to Act Like It

When in doubt, ask yourself: “how would this look if I did it out on the sidewalk? How would a person react if I did this to their face?”

Ask yourself: “how would I feel about this information if it was coming from a person I could see? How much would I trust them based on the actual data I know about them, not what they claim? Would I change my life or make a major decision based on their input alone?”

Ask yourself, “If I treated someone like this in person, would I feel embarrassed? Is this the kind of conversation that I’d want to take a person aside to have, rather than say it in a loud voice in a crowded room, and if so, why is it okay to say it in a world-spanning voice in a room that includes, potentially, everyone on earth?”

Ask yourself: “if I wanted to feel safe going out in public, what would I need to do first? What information do I need to protect in public? How much could strangers see of me if I go out? Is my informational ass hanging out of my pants?”

And, just to get prepped for the coming Data Wars…

Ask yourself: “how much would I value the data corporations harvest from me if they had to pay me for it? Would I be okay with someone making money off me this way if, say, a guy at McDonald’s took a photo of me and then put up a billboard flogging hamburgers with my face? If they make billions selling my data, shouldn’t I at least know which parts of it they sell? And let’s be real – shouldn’t I get a cut?”

How to (Not) Read the News

I’ve been trying to meditate in the morning, just for like ten minutes. Just a little bit of silence and stillness at one point in the day. It helps remind me that the madness I experience inside and out is not who I am or what the world is. Not entirely, not all the time. The silence also exists. The stillness is also possible.

It’s tough, though, because of course the internet is awake and wants to share its nightmares with me. President Orange is the New Black is awake and spitting blood at whichever brown people were mentioned to him most recently. The 24-hour news cycle has not been to bed in twenty years and has spent the night adding exciting graphics to the newest hostile tweet and paging pundits to deplore it. Like a cokehead roommate, CNN pounds on my door, full of bright ideas, bushy-tailed with fear and froth, and oh by the way do you have any cash?

I can’t, guys. I just can’t with this. I have a lot of problems with how journalism works now, which is why I never became a journalist in the classic sense (although hey, if Tomi Lahren is a journalist, I guess we are all journalists on this blessed day!) But it’s not just an ideological issue I have, it’s also a mental one. I have anxiety, which is an unscientific term I’m here using to refer to a variety of mental issues that make me very susceptible to flipping the fuck out. “Flipping the fuck out” is an unscientific term I’m here using to refer to “being unable to manage my own life because every source of news is constantly screaming at me about how everything is horrible forever.”

The fact is that our brains evolved (very recently from a biological perspective) to manage social groups of no more than 150 individuals and physical challenges in a very limited habitat. We are simply not equipped to comfortably absorb a constant stream of brutal news about people and places far away from us. The headlines and stories are written to provoke emotion, empathy, because that’s how they get you to open your wallet, but what it’s doing to you is prodding your lizard brain, a thousand times an hour, into feeling that something bad is happening right now and you could be helping. Your brain stem doesn’t know how far away Japan is. It doesn’t know that the child weeping on the news is ten thousand miles from you and you have no concrete way to stop her tears. Even if you did, if you could send a donation this instant and know for certain that the child you see on the news would be saved, your animal brain would not connect those events — you would still feel stressed, like you did nothing to help, because you can’t see it, can’t witness your action ending her suffering.

The trouble is, a lot of horrible things do exist and occur, and these things are worthy of coverage. But the news wasn’t always this rabidly toxic, this frenetically enraged, not this constantly, not this universally, and there are reasons for that, two major ones in particular: the death of the Fairness Doctrine in the 80s, and the birth of the internet.

Whether the Fairness Doctrine could be applied to the internet with its original wording, and whether enshrining it in law through the Fairness in Broadcasting Act would have affected the tone of journalism in the 90s as the internet was becoming mainstream are “what if” questions that can’t be answered for certain now. But I think it’s foolish to discount the effect that its abolishment had on the way people view the purpose of journalism. For people who grew up in the 80s and 90s, the idea that a journalist’s primary purpose is to tell the objective truth, to make exclusively verifiable, notable information available to the public in as clear and complete a form as possible… that idea is laughable now. That’s not what a news anchor cares about. That’s not what a reporter does. That’s not what a blogger or a columnist is for.

The purpose of journalism, the job of the reporter or the news anchor, has become identical to the job of the fast-food employee: squish whatever substance is handy into a bite-sized nugget that the ravenous animals across the counter will pay for. Keep shoveling until they’re stuffed. They don’t want quality, they want quantity. It doesn’t matter what it is, it just matters that the supply never ends.

And that’s where the internet comes in — because the internet made the 24-hour news cycle utterly psychotic, completely undiscriminating in its need for content, by subdividing that 24 hours into finer and finer slices and demanding new headlines for each. In the 80s, you needed enough news to talk about at five o’clock, some for the eleven o’clock guy to do after he recaps what you said, and then we’re good till six AM. But the goal of the internet, the clickbait gold standard, is to provide you with new things to look at every single time you refresh the page. The ad-supported model requires new headlines every second of every day. In that model, how is it possible to maintain the “notable” requirement that only Wikipedia still seems to give a shit about? In that model, how can fact-checking, source-citing, or nuance survive?

The goal of news outlets has become the same goal every capitalist institution eventually slumps into: pump out a constant stream of the cheapest crap you can, at the highest price you can get, as long as the money keeps flowing. Quality is meaningless, truth is meaningless, relevance is meaningless, ethics are meaningless. None of it matters. All that matters is what people will pay for and how much.

So… that’s all horribly depressing. I can’t solve this problem on a national scale, and just thinking about it makes me feel like never writing another word. So I don’t think about it. Instead, I established two rules for interacting with the news, and I suggest you take them on as well, for your own mental health:

1. It’s not news if it disappears in less than two days.

Everyone wants me to be up in arms about everything, all the time. My outrage is being constantly solicited — every notification is a new person bringing something they want me to be afraid of or pissed about. Then, just when I’ve worked myself up into a good snit over whatever it is, there’s a new plop of agitprop on my mat. For a while, I interrogated these people: “Who’s doing what now? Okay, but that’s illegal, so surely someone put a stop to it, right? Oh, they did already? Great, so… why are you telling me this again?”

The fact is, yeah, it’s bad that someone was murdered in Cleveland, I get that. But can you do anything about it? How does your knowledge of that family’s suffering relieve it in any way? How do you benefit anyone by conceding a portion of your emotional and mental energy to that tragedy, by allowing it to affect your mood and your own personal life? Is that, in fact, allowing a murderer in Cleveland to ruin your day in addition to the lives he’s ruined? What purpose does that serve? Why did the news tell you about it — what did they expect you to do with this information? Did they tell you because you needed to know? Or did they tell you because they needed something to say?

So when I see a headline, I postpone my emotional reaction. I don’t look at the pictures, I don’t read up on the issue… for two days. If two days pass and I’m still seeing articles on this subject, it’s still popping up in my feed from multiple sources, not just one shouty person who thinks it’s news… then it’s probably news. Get out of my face with headlines that read, “UGLY PUDDLE OCCUPYING MAIN STREET!” You and I both know that puddle will be gone by noon, Megyn. Get a real job.

2. It’s not news when somebody shoots off at the mouth.

This is the really important one, and it’s gonna save you a lot of time, because 99% of the fucking news these days is he-said, she-said. Ninety-nine percent of politics is theater, and it’s only gotten worse with a reality-show president who’s delighted to set up his little folding desk and autograph a memo with absolutely no legal impact, but after years in the White House still doesn’t quite know what the president actually does.

Now that the politicians have discovered Twitter, there’s no expectation that their remarks be considered or consistent, because “that’s not an official channel.” Hilariously, it’s a convenient blend of official and non-official, in that those statements will be considered newsworthy and binding when it serves the politician’s purpose, and when it doesn’t, bringing it up is totally inappropriate and how dare you suggest that a public figure should uphold the same values in online communication as they do in press releases?

Politicians love to talk about what they’re going to do. What they hope to do. What they plan to do. What they’ll do if the other guy does what he said he’d do when he hears what we said about what we said he’ll do. “If we can get the funding.” “If we can get the votes.” They posture and they preen, they talk trash with one face and promise utopia with the other, and then when things don’t work out, they justify and scramble and excuse, and none of that is news. It’s a soap opera — way too few black people, audience aged roughly 85, flogging Viagra in between dramatic pauses and white male angst.

Seriously? This is the news? Are you sure? Are you positive you didn’t just turn on ESPN? Because this kind of circlejerk about the ethereal fucking future is for sports fans and TV psychics. This is not data. This is not information about the world that anyone needs. Until someone accomplishes a task, until politicians do literally anything but piss on each other’s shoes, get the hell off my screen.

Let’s apply our new standard to today’s headlines, shall we? Let’s see how much cleaner the front page looks when we purge the non-news. Check out these headlines just from today:

  • “Trump says he called off attack on Iran 10 minutes before launch.” (Washington Times)
  • “Republicans fear campaign arm is stumbling in fight for the House”
  • “Ocasio-Cortez calls migrant detention centers ‘concentration camps,’ eliciting backlash”
    (New York Times)
  • “US Democratic hopeful Booker proposes clemency for thousands of drug offenders”
  • “A pro-gun Parkland shooting survivor had his Harvard admission revoked over racist remarks”
    (Buzzfeed News)

I’ve tried to get us a range from news outlets all over the political spectrum — this issue is not partisan, it’s an issue with how we fund news and how we consume it. Let’s pick these headlines apart and see what we’re left with.

“Trump called off attack on Iran 10 minutes before launch.” Okay, so… the attack didn’t happen? How do we know the attack was going to happen? Who said so? Who approved the attack, if it was going to happen — presumably Trump, right? So is he getting praised for calling off his own operation? That seems to happen a lot with this President, and that’s not actually praiseworthy — sorry, son, you don’t get congratulations for cleaning up the mess you made yourself. Let’s rewrite this headline to accurately reflect what actually, verifiably happened this morning: “Trump said a thing about Iran.”

“Republicans fear campaign arm is stumbling in fight for the House.” All right, so what you’re saying is, some people who are Republican are concerned about the Republican party’s reelection campaign because the Republican party is too busy with, like… doing their jobs, the ones they got elected to do? So these fearful Republicans, can they affect the reelection campaign in any way? Will their fears definitely result in concrete change to the party’s strategy? Or are they saying their fears out loud, to the press, precisely because there’s nothing else they can do to control the outcome but talk? And if that’s the case… why is this news?

“Ocasio-Cortez calls migrant detention centers ‘concentration camps,’ eliciting backlash.” Now, I like AOC, that’s probably obvious to you. I don’t try to hide my own bias and I like that she said this. But this is still not fucking news. This headline indicates that a representative used a phrase to refer to a thing, and that made some people mad. AOC using that phrase doesn’t somehow grant her more power to affect the plight of migrants, it isn’t a change in her position or direction on this issue, and the backlash isn’t a new or thrilling dimension in the ongoing discussion of immigration — the Hitler references have been going on for a couple years now, and it’s an emotional argument on both sides, not one that’s intended to spark nuanced debate. So… why exactly is this news? How is this helping the kids in those cages?

“US Democratic hopeful Booker proposes clemency for thousands of drug offenders.” Here’s where this policy of mine becomes really useful, because if you ignore the promises people pull out of their asses when they’re trying to get elected, you can ignore 99% of the campaign. The fact is that when a politician keeps even one of their campaign promises, it’s so startling that we remark upon it. So why should I listen to a goddamn thing they say on the campaign trail? Booker, that’s a great idea you’ve got there. Do you have any actual idea how you’d fund and enforce this plan of yours? Do you have a way to definitely get it past Congress, along with a way to definitely get elected president so your great ideas matter at all? Well, no, of course not, because we’re not there yet and these issues are complicated. So why are we talking about it at all? Why should I praise you for telling me you’d definitely solve a problem if I gave you the means to solve it?

“A pro-gun Parkland shooting survivor had his Harvard admission revoked over racist remarks.” Hey look! — actual news. You might look at it and think, “oh, it’s news about something somebody said.” But it’s not, see? Something happened. Somebody said a thing, yes, and somebody else got mad about the thing they said, but then that second person did a thing about it. This headline isn’t, “Harvard Dean says Parkland shooting survivor is a huge dick for being racist,” because that’s not news. The news is: “Institutional consequences for racism occur in an area (academia) that has historically been very white and slow to accept social change.” That’s real! It’s an event that unquestionably occurred, and we’ve got the info about it.

So now that we’ve been through the front page and stripped out the non-news, what do we have left? What things went on today that I need to know about?

  • “A pro-gun Parkland shooting survivor had his Harvard admission revoked over racist remarks.”

Look at that, the news is all good today! I can go to work with a light heart. Because I’m not carrying the pile of anxiety and fear every news outlet would like to dump on me as part of this complete breakfast. Because conspiracy theorists can make blogs now, so we don’t have to keep pretending that they’re journalists. Because I didn’t download the daily dispatch of politicians’ fluffy wish-dreams as if it’s information. Because unreasoning fear doesn’t help anyone, even the people I’m afraid for — it only helps sell ad space.